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By Peter Van Buskirk

The college admission process can produce some interesting personal dilemmas. One such quandary was brought to my attention in a phone call from a young man who was trying to sort out an Early Decision opportunity. A competitive athlete, he had been approached by a recruiting coach from an NCAA Division III (non-scholarship) school with the suggestion that he convert his application for admission from Regular Decision to Early Decision (ED). Moreover, the coach had assured the young man that if his application for financial aid did not produce the desired assistance from this institution, he would not be held to his commitment to enroll if accepted ED.

The student was understandably excited and confused by this development. While he liked the school very much, he couldn’t say for sure that it was his first choice. This is largely due to his need of financial aid. In fact, the uncertainty of his financial aid situation had led him to actively consider other schools as well. Moreover, he understood the underlying premise of the unconditional commitment to enroll if accepted that is assumed of ED candidates. As a result, he was skeptical of the pitch he had been given by this coach.

My advice to the young man was simple: “If you need to make sure you get the best financial aid possible—and there is a chance other schools might admit you and give you better offers—then don’t give up your right to see those offers by converting your application to ED at one school.”

I pointed out that the coach is behaving unethically in making this suggestion and suggested that he (the student) not compound the problem by heading down that road with him. I’m not sure I told this young man anything he didn’t already suspect to be true, but our chat gave him the confidence to respond to the coach’s overtures.

Whether or not you are a recruited athlete, you need to be vigilant about the ethics of the admission process. This can be especially challenging when you see evidence that others—on both sides of the negotiation—are pushing the ethical “envelope.” Where there are clearly articulated rules, you need to observe them. The desire to get into favored schools should never put you in a place where you compromise your integrity.

Unfortunately, the coach in question was crossing the ethical “line” by asking the applicant to consider an Early Decision application when he knew the young man could only do so conditionally due to his financial situation—clearly a breach of rules governing the ED process. The good news is the young man had the presence of mind to step back and assess the situation objectively.

Now, in case you’re checking the calendar and wondering how this conversation between the coach and the applicant could be taking place as the “round two” deadlines for ED have passed at most schools, welcome to the world of college admission in 2018! These are the days when selective colleges do what they can to pump up their yields on offers of admission while looking for opportunities to reduce the overall number of students they need to admit and, hence, become more selective. For example, each additional ED enrollment reduces the number of low-yielding Regular Decision candidates to be admitted by four or five at most colleges.

Consider the impact of such a strategy on a larger scale. A college or university that can attract 50 more ED enrollments over the previous year reduces by as many as 250 Regular Decision students it would otherwise need to admit to fill those places in the class. As a result, the more ED enrollments a school can stockpile, the more selective it becomes.

Add to the mix the dynamics of athletic recruitment—even at the NCAA Division III non-scholarship level—and the opportunity for late-season Early Decision conversations emerges. A few other observations are worth noting here.

One, the NCAA forbids Division III athletic recruiters from having any conversation about family finances with the financial aid officers at their respective institutions. In short, an athlete’s potential involvement in an NCAA Division III program may NOT have any bearing on the disposition of his/her financial aid status.

Two, each institution employs slightly different criterion in assessing a student’s financial “need” and then recognizing the comparative strength of her academic credential within the context of its financial aid program. It is not only possible, then, that a recruit’s financial “need” could be read differently from one school to the next, but the strength of her academic credential could also result in differences in the composition of the financial aid awards she receives. Whereas a student athlete may qualify for special consideration academically at one school, at others she may not.

Finally, the late season ED phenomenon is not limited to recruited athletes. Admission officers at many selective schools will keep the application “door” open past formal deadlines as they troll for high-yielding ED conversions well into February of the admission process. Should you be presented with such an opportunity, just remember—the rules remain the same. If you convert your application to ED, you are making an unconditional commitment to enroll if accepted.

BCF Readers’ Forum XII

Thursday, June 15th, 2017

Dear Peter,
I’m finishing my Junior year in the International Baccalaureate program and I am worried about the prestige of the IB program at my current school. How do colleges consider the IB in determining the reputation of the high school? Will they consider the performance of alumni from my school in the past to determine whether I am going to a good school?

Dear Ronnie,
You are very fortunate to be studying in an IB program. While I can’t speak for all universities, I can tell you that most regard the IB as one of the premier academic programs in the world. The philosophy and content of the program are universal, so every participating high school (and student) will be subject to the same curricular expectations. A high school can only offer IB instruction if it is approved by the IB Organization and its faculty have undergone significant training.

In determining the relative strength of a given program, colleges review profile data provided by the high school that reveals the percentage of the overall enrollment engaged in the program as full IB candidates, the percentage of graduates who have completed the IB Diploma requirements and the performances of graduates on IB exams. A school that features the IB program, but does not see many of its students complete the Diploma requirements or whose collective exam results are relatively modest, might not inspire the same confidence in a college as one that is consistently showing a high rate of Diploma completion with high exam results.

In the final analysis, though, it will be your performance in the IB that counts the most. If you embrace the full IB, perform at a high level in your daily work and project high exam results, you will put yourself on the competitive “playing fields” (for admission) at most selective institutions in the US.

Dear Peter,
During a college visit this weekend, my daughter met with a coach who asked her to fill out an information form that requested her social media accounts (Facebook, Instagram and, I think, Skype). There is nothing negative on the accounts, but she feels the request steps over the privacy bounds. If she doesn’t provide the information, could that reflect negatively on her as an applicant? They are not requesting passwords or access, just the account names and, of course, we instructed her to ensure that all privacy settings were at the maximum. Is this a common request in the application process?

Dear Sue,
The coach’s request for the social media info is fairly benign. In all likelihood, the coach is looking for the best opportunity to stay in touch—and this is not uncommon among recruiters. Under no circumstances, though, should your daughter share that information if she is at all uncomfortable doing so. Frankly, if her reluctance to share the information does adversely affect her status with the coach/school, it might be a good thing in the long run. After all, would she really want to be subject to an environment of caution and distrust as exhibited by the person(s) who would be leading her sport program? Something to think about.

Dear Peter,
What is going on with social media in the admission process? I just read where students have had their admission revoked at highly selective institutions—after they had enrolled—because of information they posted on social media sites.

Dear Charles,
This is a tricky situation. Anything that students (or any of us for that matter) post on social media is discoverable. While I am not aware that colleges actively investigate each applicant, they are clearly prepared to look into situations if provoked. I am not intimately familiar with the recent expulsions, but it is my impression that the students in question had posted insensitive, if not highly inflammatory, statements. Private colleges are within their rights to take disciplinary action if such activity is discovered that violates their codes of conduct.

My advice to students: Treat your social media accounts as though they are billboards on the interstate. Don’t post anything you don’t want the world to see. Moreover, be conscious of language, ideas or images that others might be using in conversation with you as they can be perceived of a reflection of you and your values.

Additional Note: Financial aid officers are able to access real estate profiles on Zillow as well as Facebook and LinkedIn accounts that might reveal pertinent home equity information and financial lifestyle choices that could have a bearing on the determination of a family’s ability to pay for college.

Dear Peter,
I need advice regarding the FAFSA and if one should, or should not, complete it. If we put our information into the FAFSA system, will colleges assume we are seeking financial aid even if we do not intend to pursue that option? Will it reflect more positively if we don’t complete the FAFSA? Or will schools understand our intent if we check the “do not need financial aid” option?

Dear Marge,
Completing the FAFSA will not lead to the conclusion by colleges that you are pursuing need-based financial aid. The FAFSA is a Federal document designed to determine your daughter’s eligibility to receive loans, grants and campus work opportunities funded and/or subsidized by the US government. It makes sense to complete the FAFSA if you want to explore these funding options.

While many colleges use the FAFSA to determine a student’s eligibility for institutional support, the more selective private colleges will also require submission of the College Scholarship Service Profile.

In any case, the point of discrimination in the selective admission process will come when an institution determines that you are not able to be fully self-funding in the process, at which time the question becomes: “If we extend institutional funding to this student, what is the likely return on our investment?” This question will become relevant regardless of whether the “financial aid box” is checked on the application for admission.

At schools where your daughter is likely to be on the margin of the competition, the demonstrated “need” of financial assistance could well compromise her chances of admission. Conversely, in admission competition where she is highly valued for what she has to offer, an institution will admit her and use its resources to leverage her enrollment. The solution: work with her to identify schools where she will be valued for what she has to offer!

Over the last week, I had the good fortune of being able to convene a meeting for deans of admission and college access professionals from schools around the country. Conducted in a think-tank format, it is a fascinating opportunity to learn about trends and gain “insider” perspectives from the people who are in the “trenches” of the college-going process. I’d like to share the following observations from this meeting.

Athletic Recruitment Run Amok
Secondary school counselors expressed concern that student athletes are being pressed into making commitments in a manner that is counter-productive to their academic and personal development. While the NCAA explicitly prohibits coaches from initiating direct contact with students prior to the end of the Junior Year in high school, we hear of more and more students who are “committing” to colleges as early as 9th and 10th grade.

Such presumptive commitments can be problematic, however, as they assume the student will ultimately be admitted when, in fact, critical elements of his/her academic credential have yet to be completed. Deans of admission acknowledged that the pressure to win encourages coaches to leverage commitments from top talent earlier in the process.  Some, in fact, acknowledged they have provisions in place to preview candidates’ academic credentials to determine the “likelihood” of admission.

In an interesting exchange between a college advisor and an admission dean at a Division I university, we learned that the vetting process is not always followed as it should be. When the former asserted that one of her 10th graders had committed to the university, the latter responded that such a commitment wasn’t possible as he hadn’t reviewed any credentials. The college advisor then pulled up a recruitment webpage for the sport in question on which it was reported that the student, identified by name and high school, had indeed committed to the university. You can imagine the looks of astonishment!

The bottom line:
If you are a recruited athlete being pressured to make a commitment, be sure you understand the terms of that commitment. And it’s never a bad idea to seek confirmation of the commitment through the admission officer at the university in question.

“An ‘Unhooked’ Kid Is Not Competitive.”
This quote came from a dean of admission at an Ivy League institution. It references the reality of the competition at institutions where small fractions of the very good candidates are admitted and debunks the notion that great grades and scores will be the ticket to admission.

The bottom line: While grades and scores are needed to get you on the competitive playing fields at elite institutions, it is the “hook”—that part of the student’s credential that causes her/him to stand out among the rest—as valued by the institution that ultimately makes the difference in determining who will be admitted.

Gap Year Ethics
Admission deans reported that increasing numbers of admitted students are seeking enrollment deferrals to pursue “gap year” experiences—and that more of these students are now using the gap year to enhance their credentials with the hope of improving their chances of enrollment at more selective institutions a year hence. While colleges and universities see the value in the gap year for personal and educational reasons, they are increasingly wary of strategic motives on the part of the students. As they manage their enrollments, they need assurance that the deferred student will indeed be with them at the end of the gap year.

The bottom line: Expect to see a tightening of terms for the gap year on the part of the granting institutions. If this is something you want to do, be prepared to articulate your reasoning and make a commitment (in some cases financial) to enroll at the end of the gap year.

“Don’t Tell Me You Belong Here Just Because You Have the Grades To Get In.”
In referencing the sense of entitlement often encountered with talented, high achieving students, the author of this comment went on to say, “I don’t have to admit you just because you deserve to be here.” He went on to explain that, in a large pool of extremely well qualified candidates, he was most interested in finding the students who had researched his institution sufficiently to be able to demonstrate a clear understanding of the synergy that exists between the two.

The bottom line: Take seriously the opportunity to learn about and build relationships with the institutions about which you care the most. Go beyond demonstrating interest to demonstrate, by your words and deeds, that you belong.

Acronyms From the Business World
Did you know that many institutions now regard students as RPUs? And that the decision to admit a student—and, possibly, make an award of financial aid or scholarship—is often determined by an estimation of ROI? For the uninitiated, an RPU is a “revenue producing unit” and ROI stands for “return on investment.” At many institutions, these terms—and the related concepts—are instrumental in framing the decision-making involved in the admission and enrollment processes.

The bottom line: While it may be rather sobering to see these stark business references applied to young people in the college going process, they speak to institutional agendas that are undeniable.  As you look at colleges, then, the “best fits” for you will be the places that stand ready to invest in you—they value you for what you have to offer.