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‘Welcome to the Wild West’: The Competition for College Applicants Just Intensified

By Eric Hoover | September 29, 2019


They did it despite their reservations. They did it because they saw no other choice. Under pressure from the Justice Department, admissions officers and college counselors on Saturday voted to delete portions of their ethics code. And just like that, the rules of competition among colleges changed.


Previously, the National Association for College Admission Counseling, known as NACAC, barred colleges from offering incentives, such as special housing or better financial-aid packages, exclusively to applicants who apply under binding early-decision programs. The organization’s “Code of Ethics and Professional Practices” also said colleges must stop recruiting a student once he or she has submitted a deposit to another institution. And the code said colleges can’t solicit transfer applications from a previous applicant or prospect unless that student inquires about transferring. Now all three provisions are gone.


The changes made here at NACAC’s 75th national conference will inject even more uncertainty into the admissions realm. For one thing, the old calendar just went out the window: Because colleges now are free to pursue students who’ve committed elsewhere after the May 1 deposit deadline, financial-aid offers could keep flying all summer long. Poaching another institution’s students while devising ways to protect your own could become a familiar exercise for many enrollment leaders.

“Welcome,” one insider tweeted after Saturday’s vote, “to the Wild West.”


Colleges find themselves in this situation because of a dispute over two related questions: Do key provisions of NACAC’s ethics code restrain competition among colleges? And do those provisions help applicants or harm them?


Nearly two years ago, the Justice Department opened an investigation into whether the code, with its long list of mandatory practices, violates federal antitrust laws. In a recent message to members, the association said the Justice Department interpreted some provisions restricting recruitment before or after May 1 as hindering students “who may be able to lower college costs if they remain subject to competition among colleges.”


One college official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential conversations between the association’s members and the Justice Department, described the dialogue as frustrating. “We tried to explain that students should be free from pressure from the many players with a vested interest in the outcomes of those decisions,” the official said. “But the DOJ sees this purely through the lens of restraint of trade. They think they’re protecting applicants’ financial outcomes.”


Recently NACAC informed its members that the investigation threatened the organization’s future. Hoping to avoid costly litigation and burdensome requirements, the association’s leaders urged voting members to approve the removal of the three provisions.


Before the changes were approved — by a vote of 211 to 3 — Stefanie D. Niles, NACAC’s departing president, said she hoped the changes would be seen as “a good-faith compromise with the DOJ.” But it remains to be seen whether the changes will bring the investigation to a close. Just in case, NACAC’s members voted to grant its Board of Directors temporary authority to make changes in its bylaws in the event of “extraordinary legal circumstances.”



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