Safeguarding Ethics in College Admissions

By Charlotte West    //    Volume 28,  Number 1   //    January/February 2020

With college admissions coming under public scrutiny, boards of trustees need to understand their institutions’ enrollment management practices now more than ever.

In March 2019, federal prosecutors filed charges against 50 people in six states on crimes ranging from fraud to racketeering for attempting to buy admission to a number of selective universities including Wake Forest, Stanford, the University of Southern California, UCLA, the University of Texas, and Georgetown. The individuals implicated in the scandal, which has become known as Operation Varsity Blues, included athletics coaches, independent college counselors, and celebrity parents such as Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin.

In some cases, coaches were paid to offer athletics scholarships to students who did not play sports, while others involved bribing test proctors to doctor students’ standardized test scores. According to the New York Times, Varsity Blues was the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) largest-ever college admissions prosecution. More than six months after charges were first filed, the scandal is still making headlines.

While only a handful of primarily elite institutions were involved in the scandal and no admissions officers were implicated, the ramifications have reverberated across the entire field of college admissions. Even at the institutions that were implicated in the recent scandals, “most…had sound practices and ethical leaders in place. It only takes one or two rogue employees to harm a university in a very public and damaging manner,” notes Todd Rinehart, vice chancellor for enrollment at the University of Denver.

The scandal amplified public skepticism about the higher education sector as a whole, and raised questions about privilege, access, and inequality in college admissions. In response, boards of trustees and leadership at other institutions are now questioning whether or not similar scandals could occur on their watch, and admissions officers and enrollment managers are having to defend the ethics of their profession. Varsity Blues highlighted the need to ensure ethical admissions policies and practices, some of which actually occur outside of the admissions office.

Stefanie Niles, vice president for enrollment and communications at Ohio Wesleyan University (OWU), adds that it’s important for trustees to understand how a scandal like Varsity Blues occurred, and encourages their institution’s leadership to examine best practices to ensure their institution is safeguarded for the future. “While Varsity Blues only impacted a small number of institutions, others are not necessarily immune from the type of enticements and illegal practices we saw play out in the Varsity Blues scandal,” she says.

David Hawkins, executive director for educational content and policy for the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), says that the Varsity Blues bribery scheme was about “getting around the admissions office, not through it. That’s an important distinction for trustees to understand [in the sense that] this is about a systemic weakness that could come up pretty much anywhere in the institution.”

Changes in NACAC’s Ethics Code Governing University Admissions

While Varsity Blues made national headlines, other recent changes in college admissions that potentially have more far-reaching effects for a greater number of colleges and universities occurred with less fanfare. At its annual conference at the end of September, NACAC removed three provisions in its Code of Ethics and Professional Practices (CEPP) related to recruitment incentives. The decision came under pressure from an antitrust investigation by the DOJ in hopes of avoiding litigation.

The axed provisions previously prohibited institutions from offering incentives for early decision applicants or recruiting students already enrolled at other institutions or who had committed to another institution after May 1. NACAC also issued a one-year moratorium on enforcement of the remaining parts of its ethics code. While NACAC is a voluntary association, the majority of colleges and universities in the United States are members. Any institution participating in its college fairs also had to agree to abide by the CEPP.

The DOJ claims that the provisions restricted fair trade and their removal would allow institutions to freely compete, in turn benefiting students through better scholarships and other incentives.

Enrollment managers take issue with the claim that institutions should be able to compete in the same way as other sectors—a distinction that they say trustees may not immediately understand. “Many trustees are successful business people and may not understand why offering incentives to students to apply or enroll may be harmful or unethical,” Rinehart says.

For example, the ethical principle behind prohibiting recruitment incentives is the idea that students should be able to choose where to go to college free of coercion or manipulation from colleges. “[The DOJ’s investigation] completely ignores our efforts to help students arrive at a good match for themselves,” says Steve Syverson, assistant vice chancellor for enrollment management at the University of Washington-Bothell.

Previously, the CEPP provided an outside frame of reference that enrollment managers could point to when members of the board suggested practices that might not benefit students. “I can’t tell you how many of my members over the years have said they appreciated having our code of ethics to show to their president or their board of trustees—how something that they would suggest would fly in the face of our professional standards,” says Joyce Smith, CEO of NACAC.

While it’s too early to tell whether most colleges will continue to voluntarily abide by the provisions as examples of best practices, there will likely be significant upheaval for admissions and enrollment management. “Now that colleges have the ability to put into practice all of these strategies previously off limits to NACAC members, there may be significant changes to the admission process,” Niles says.

She predicts that more institutions may see students transfer, and colleges may lose their ability to predict and plan their fall enrollment since students can now be actively recruited throughout the summer. “Trustees should be talking with their presidents and chief enrollment officers about these changes and what they mean for their institution, and if they are proactively addressing any future challenges these changes might cause,” Niles explains.

Hawkins says that the biggest ethics violation NACAC has seen in the past is institutions pressuring students to commit earlier than the traditional College Signing Day on May 1. “We created the May 1 deadline as kind of a waiting period that students could use to compare offers between colleges and make informed decisions,” he says. Now, colleges can offer incentives for students to commit early as well as continue to recruit into the summer.

Rinehart also expressed concern that early decision incentives will primarily benefit middle- and high-income students. “For example, it isn’t typically wise for a low-income student to apply to a binding, early decision program as they need to compare financial aid offers from a number of schools. Yet if a college is only offering incentives to early decision applicants, then low-income students may miss out on any number of incentives that would actually benefit them the most,” he says.

Hawkins predicts that less selective, tuition-dependent institutions are going to be under the most pressure to do whatever it takes to recruit more students. At least one college has already started offering students who commit to early decision incentives such as priority scheduling, a dedicated parking space, early access to a success coach, and priority housing.

According to Hawkins, the absence of a binding code of ethics transfers a lot of accountability squarely onto the shoulders of institutions. “Particularly as you consider ethical guidelines or considerations, it is really important to think about the reputational and legal risk that you could incur,” he says.

“The bottom line is at a time when competition is at an all-time high, institutions can, and likely will, be driven to all sorts of different practices, some more desperate than others,” Hawkins says. “There are going to be a lot of universities that are going to start trying new things that maybe in years past would have run afoul of our ethical principles and could have resulted in some disciplinary action by NACAC.”

An Increasingly Volatile Admissions Landscape

The Varsity Blues scandals and the DOJ inquiry into NACAC’s code of ethics took place against the backdrop of an increasingly competitive and volatile admissions landscape. According to Hawkins, that is exactly why ethical admissions policies and practices at the institutional level are more important than ever.

“The business of admissions continues to be volatile,” Hawkins says. “It creates a very intensely competitive environment for colleges and universities, and it can drive institutions right up to the line and even going across it to behavior that could be considered unethical and potentially even illegal.”

Trustees need to understand that their admissions office, and by extension—the campus as a whole—is under immense pressure to meet revenue and enrollment goals, Hawkins says.

“When you’re talking about risk management, the budget office, the financial aid office, and the admissions office work very hard to try to balance the institution’s revenue needs with the mission that the institution wants to fulfil and the students that the institution [wants to attract],” he says. “The environment is going to make it even more difficult for institutions to manage those considerations in the foreseeable future.”

The pressures might be different, depending on institutional type. For colleges and universities like those named in the recent scandals, the pressure is often more about ensuring selectivity, Syverson says. For most institutions, however, the focus is on how to fill their incoming classes.

The Role of Boards of Trustees in College Admissions

What then is the proper role for boards of trustees in ensuring ethical college admissions? Syverson points to the age-old adage of “trust but verify.”

According to Rinehart, “the primary role of a trustee should be to ensure enrollment policies align with school mission and goals, serve as a sounding board for various concepts, and to encourage and support their enrollment leader.”

Niles adds that trustees must ensure that the educational product is strong and relevant to the market given their responsibility for the long-term viability of the institution ”If it isn’t, they must ask, examine, and answer if there are steps they must take to make necessary changes,” she says.

Lawrence University offers a new trustee orientation that provides guidelines that frame trustees’ level of involvement. Trustees receive a “Commitments Statement” in the orientation materials that outlines expectations for how they will work with the university. “It clarifies, for example, that the board is to approve policies and plans and monitor implementation, but that individual members do not have the authority to act on those matters,” Anselment says.

In some cases, trustees can also provide an important audit function. It was a regent who sought records and asked questions that helped bring to light a pattern of favoritism in admissions at the University of Texas-Austin in 2013. An external review of 77 letters of recommendation that were sent to the university president outside of the standard admissions process found much higher admission rates that could not be explained by other factors such as grades or test scores.

Rinehart adds that enrollment managers face the challenge of balancing three metrics: access, revenue, and prestige. He says that while most enrollment managers are expected to deliver on all three, boards need to help their institutions prioritize enrollment goals. “With limited resources, schools can typically only move the needle in one or two areas, and campus leaders sometimes struggle to identify what is truly most important,” he says. “The school’s mission and any corresponding strategic plans should drive where the time, money, and energy are invested but oftentimes the desire for greater net revenue and academic profile muddy the waters in the decision process.”

He adds that changing student demographics will mean that the current definition of enrollment success may also change. “Prestige may be less important in future decades as schools place more emphasis on providing access to their great campuses and finding ways to do this with limited budgets,” Rinehart explains.

How Institutions are Responding to the Changing Admissions Landscape

Varsity Blues prompted many institutions to step back and review their own internal policies and practices. “Since the Varsity Blues scandal, more institutions have put some checks and balances in place in their processes,” Smith says.

Hawkins adds that many institutions have been having cross-campus conversations about how to minimize exposure. “As a trustee, you would ultimately want to have a pretty good understanding of what your institutional practices are when it comes to your student athlete recruiting process and how that interacts with the admissions office. You want to ask if there are multiple controls and checkpoints, identify any potential weaknesses, and rule out any problems before they happen,” he says.

The enrollment management team at Lawrence University in Wisconsin didn’t change any of its policies and practices, but it did formalize them. “We’ve taken the opportunity to review and codify our work here so that everybody is clear on what we can and cannot do,” says Ken Anselment, vice president for enrollment and communication. “It’s important to write down…the principles that govern the work that we do.”

At OWU, Niles has hired a consultant who is developing a product that can verify the authenticity of students’ extracurricular involvement. “This product would prove useful for schools that believe they may be at risk for fraud in the admissions process,” she says.

Some of the focus has been on how the admissions office inter-faces with the rest of the university, particularly with athletics. “I’m aware of a number of my colleagues at other schools who dusted off their policy manuals to ensure their practices with advancement and athletics were updated, relevant, and being practiced,” Rinehart says. “At Denver, we submitted our admissions policy for athletes to the audit committee, both for their awareness, but also to have this on their radar for periodic checkups.”

Similarly, the University of Washington, which recruits NCAA Division 1 athletes, conducted a review of its recruitment and admissions processes for athletes and other prospective students with special talents. While they were satisfied with current policies, they added a requirement that three representatives of a specific department need to sign off on any applicant who will receive special consideration before they are handed off to admissions. In athletics, representatives would include the coach, the compliance officer, and a senior athletics administrator.

Hawkins adds that trustees want to take a look at how prospective students interact with any administrator, staff, or faculty member who might be involved in the recruitment process. “A lot of information about college admissions gets more distorted the further from the admissions office it gets,” he says.

“We think it’s important for trustees to have an institution-wide policy on how people are trained to interact with prospective students, how they understand admissions policies and practices, and how they conduct themselves individually to avoid conflicts of interest,” Hawkins says.

Harvard University, for instance, has developed a conflict-of-interest training for coaches after firing its head fencing coach for selling his home to the father of a student on the fencing team for above-market value.

With regard to gifts to institutions, the scandal has put a spotlight on admissions in relevance to donations with a concern about possible preferential treatment of applicants.

Senate Finance Committee Ranking Member Ron Wyden (D-OR) introduced the College Admissions Fairness Act (S.1732). If enacted, S. 1732 would limit the charitable deduction for certain donors to colleges and universities who do not have a written policy prohibiting consideration of philanthropic donations as a factor in the admissions process.

However, there is concern about the bill and its impact of how it portrays institutions’ dealing with gifts and admissions.

“We strongly disagree with Senator Wyden’s assertion that giving to colleges and universities is transactional—that donors make significant gifts for access and in exchange for their children to be admitted into an institution. We know from our members that donors are motivated to support institutions they care deeply about,” said Sue Cunningham, president and CEO of the Council of Advancement in Support of Education, in a statement.

Best Practices for Educating Trustees about Ethical College Admissions

The challenge for many board members—not to mention the public as a whole—is that much of the information they receive about college admissions comes from the headlines. According to Anselment, the role of the enrollment management team in educating the board is to make sure they understand how events like Varsity Blues might impact their specific institution. As an enrollment manager, it’s his job “to help the board understand what it means for us.”

He suggests that boards also make an effort to understand their institution’s relationship to the higher education space as a whole. “You need to remember what position your institution occupies in the marketplace and what market realities are facing your particular institution,” he says.

The University of Denver has dedicated one of its recent board retreats to walking trustees through the entire admissions and financial aid process. They looked at hypothetical transcripts and test scores and were asked to make admissions recommendations, followed by a financial aid exercise. “[We gave] them the opportunity to prioritize the funds to influence the mix of desired student enrollments while remaining within the financial aid budget,” Rinehart says. “It was eye opening for the trustees to see how difficult it is to make admission decisions among a pool of talented applicants, then decide how to award scholarships to drive all of the desired results.”

Niles finds it valuable to have a number of trustees actively support enrollment efforts through hosting or attending admissions events, serving as alumni interviewers, and reaching out to families who are trying to make a final college choice to answer their questions. “These opportunities can give individual trustees new perspective on the role of the admissions officer and how the process works,” Niles says.

Some universities also provide guidelines about how to avoid individual conflicts of interest in the admissions process. For instance, one private university invites board members to offer input if they know an applicant personally but asks them to submit comments in writing and to avoid direct contact with the admissions office. Board members can also request that an individual student’s file receive a close read and that they receive notice of an admissions decision. They are advised against suggesting to an applicant that he or she is likely to be admitted, or that admissions prospects would be enhanced by a donation to the institution.

Countering the Dominant Narrative

Part of the challenge with college admissions is that it is widely misunderstood by the general public. According to an AGB survey on public confidence in higher education, public trust has eroded due to continuing concerns about the cost of and access to higher education.

Seven of every 10 respondents agreed that many otherwise qualified students have no opportunity to attend college. While 61 percent believe that postsecondary education is available to everyone who needs it, only 21 percent believe all can afford it.

While the vast majority of institutions admit the majority of applicants, headlines about the most selective colleges and universities in the United States dominate the narrative. The latest NACAC data show that the average acceptance rate is 69 percent. Moreover, over one third of all undergraduates are enrolled in open-access associate degree-granting institutions, according to NCES.

Boards consequently don’t always have an accurate picture of their institution’s own selectivity. “Even here at UW Bothell, my own chancellor will talk about things like going to the waitlist,” Syverson says. “The reality is we are very much an access-focused institution. We are admitting any student who we feel will come and be successful, with the exception of a couple of programs like computer science that are just completely beyond capacity.”

There also tends to be a focus on the metrics of the incoming class compared to those of their peer institutions. “Trying to think in a systematic way about the health and well-being of our students and how well we’re doing by them and paying a little less attention to what the incoming class looks like would be a healthy exercise,” he says, “but it tends not to make it to the top of the radar for most boards because most boards are struggling to figure out how they keep the place financially sound and fully enrolled.”

“We do have a big challenge that the public doesn’t trust the admissions process because it’s a mystery. There is some responsibility that we all share to try and make certain that the public has some better understanding of what the admissions process entails,” Smith says. “For trustees or presidents, it may simply be about telling your institution’s story to parents and students, but not trying to make some global statement about the whole marketplace.”

Rinehart adds that ensuring ethical admissions practices requires institution-wide commitment. “The times we are facing with changing demographics, growing expenses, and increased competition require the entire campus to be involved–schools can’t rely anymore on the magic of a single admissions leader to deliver the desired results. True success really depends on the entire university, including the trustees, addressing key challenges and working together on strategic solutions,” he says.

Charlotte West is a freelance education reporter. Her work has appeared in the Hechinger Report, USA Today, the Washington Post, and International Educator, among others.


■  The Operation Varsity Blues Scandal only involved a handful of primarily elite institutions but the effects have been felt across the field of college admission. Even at the involved institutions, actions of just a few people have now harmed the public’s trust overall in higher education. Board members need to be aware of how the admissions scandals occurred and identify any risk loopholes at their own institutions.
■  The association for school counselors and college admissions officers, the National Association for College Admission Counseling, removed three provisions in their Code of Ethics and Professional Practices, allowing institutions to offer incentives for Early Decision applicants and to recruit students already enrolled in other institutions, which has major impacts on the admissions landscape. NACAC made changes due to pressure from the Department of Justice, which asserted that the provisions did not allow institutions to compete freely. Because of this, it may impact how well institutions can budget for projected income for the incoming freshman class because students will have more leeway than in the past in committing to a spot.
■  The admissions landscape is becoming increasingly competitive and volatile. Trustees need to understand the immense pressure their institution, and specifically the admissions office, is under to meet revenue and recruitment goals. Trustees also have the responsibility of ensuring their institution’s enrollment policies align with their school’s mission and goals.