Rich likely to benefit from changes to US early admission rules

Fighting what it sees as anticompetitive practices, Trump administration may harm universities and low-income students

September 17, 2019
Source: Getty
Crackdown on anticompetitive practices the Trump administration is pushing the nation’s leading association of guidance counsellors to repeal several of its ethical guidelines governing early decision

The Trump administration is demanding that US universities overhaul the “early decision” practice under which students promise to accept an admissions offer ahead of normal timelines, in ways that could further benefit wealthier and more experienced families.

In what it describes as a crackdown on anticompetitive practices, the administration is pushing the nation’s leading association of guidance counsellors to repeal several of its ethical guidelines governing early decision.

The current membership guidelines, issued by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, include a prohibition on offering students additional incentives – such as better housing or increased financial aid – if they choose the early decision process.

Other association guidelines faulted by the US Justice Department  are those that generally expect universities to respect the exclusivity of an early decision agreement and to stop pursuing any student who has committed to one elsewhere.

The department is now making clear that it regards such provisions as violations of federal anti-trust laws.

The counsellors’ association, in response, plans to ask its members at a meeting in late September to formally delete the objectionable guidelines from its ethical code, and to give its leaders authority to make further changes as needed to satisfy government officials.

Such compliance, the association is warning its members in a letter ahead of the meeting set for 28 September in Louisville, Kentucky, appears necessary “to avoid exposing NACAC to litigation and trial”.

The early decision process, at many US universities, offers prospective students a chance to apply earlier than normal in the annual admissions process – often November, about a month or more sooner than usual – and then to receive a correspondingly earlier answer.

The counselling association’s current guidelines discourage offering incentives beyond an early response. But colleges have been known to make indirect suggestions of benefits, such as higher odds of acceptance and greater certainty of access to limited amounts of the institution’s pot of financial aid money.

Such benefits are widely understood to confer an advantage upon students and families with the greatest familiarity with colleges and their admissions processes, and thus short-change students from poorer and non-white backgrounds.

The changes proposed by the Trump administration could widen that income- and race-based opportunity gap, by making clear that such incentives are fully permissible and by encouraging all colleges to keep offering such incentives even after a student accepts an admissions offer at a different institution.

That widening advantage for wealthier families, experts said, stems from the fact that better-resourced applicants have a greater ability to understand increasingly complicated and longer-running sets of options and possibilities.

“It’s widely known and even acknowledged that early decision favours wealthy students,” said Jon Boeckenstedt, vice-provost for enrolment management at Oregon State University.

The changes being pushed by the Trump administration will also complicate the work of universities, said Robert Springall, the vice-president for enrolment management at Muhlenberg College, since institutions may need to keep fighting to keep their students after the point at which the students have promised to enrol.

That anxiety could extend even after a student begins attending a particular college, Mr Springall said, since the policy changes appear to invite outside colleges to make offers for desirable students to transfer.

“The consequences of this are difficult to predict,” he said. “I think it will affect the positions of institutions in different markets differently.”

Mr Springall said that the changes were a worrying sign that the Trump administration was keen to goad universities to compete with each other, rather than helping the neediest students.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

Reality is in the US Universities do compete with each other. Primary goal is to enhance your own University and ensure financial stability especially in private non-government funded universities. Overall social good is a secondary goal.

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