Ethical College Admissions: Consistency

Colleges may have motives to be inconsistent in admissions decisions, but high school counselors rely on some degree of consistency, writes Jim Jump.

March 5, 2018

When I first became a college counselor nearly 35 years ago, I learned early on that any conversation with a counselor from another school, public or private, would quickly and inevitably come around to a particular state university and its admission practices.

The college in question was enjoying growth and popularity that has yet to be matched. One consequence was that it had not had the time or the inclination to develop either a coherent admissions philosophy or a professional admissions process.

What inspired the wrath of my secondary colleagues was that it was not uncommon for the university to turn down a student with a 3.8 grade point average and admit another from the same high school with a 2.4 GPA. When questioned, the response was always, “Why are you so concerned about consistency?”

Why indeed? Should college admission offices strive for consistency in decisions, or is consistency an outdated concept? Ralph Waldo Emerson described a “foolish” consistency as the “hobgoblin of little minds,” but would he have felt the same way if he was wait-listed at Harvard University and Thoreau admitted? Is consistency in admission foolish, and is inconsistency strategic?

Those questions came to mind last week after a colleague had an informal counselor call with a different state university. The counselor call is itself a controversial admissions convention, and last year a reader asked that I tackle the ethical implications of that practice in a future column.

The counselor call is no longer an opportunity for haggling and deal making, if it ever was. Today it’s more infomercial, an opportunity for the admissions office to brag about a record number of applications and how strong the pool was. Nevertheless, equity and consistency are the relevant ethical principles. Are all schools and all counselors treated alike and given opportunity for a heads-up in advance of decisions?

In the course of the call, we learned that one of our best applicants is being wait-listed. The decision is unprecedented for applicants from my school and out of line with other decisions this year, and the explanation is unsatisfying. The university overenrolled by 700 students last year, making enrollment tighter, and the major the student listed is extremely competitive.

Both of those are understandable. What is frustrating is that the university has changed or, to use its language, “corrected” in midcourse its previous policy to admit students qualified for the university itself but not for a specific major.

More troubling is that the “correction” appears to be part of a larger strategy to become more selective and also target a different population than the one the university has served well in the past. That is probably tied to changes in staff. The longtime director of admissions, one of the most respected admissions professionals I have ever worked with, left midyear following the arrival of a new boss who worked previously at a less prestigious institution and is described as a “change agent.”

I have been wary of that term ever since my school hired a new administrator a number of years ago. He saw himself as a change agent, hired to fix institutional issues that no one else recognized as broken. He brought an interesting leadership style to his short tenure, creating a more effective team by uniting the faculty and staff in opposition to his leadership, just as the state university years ago united the counseling community in opposition to its lack of consistency.

I knew his star was beginning to fade after his first year when his boss came into my office and said, “That guy pushes my buttons -- bullshit and no work.” Less than a year later, he was gone after he chose to fly to D.C. for a meeting rather than take the train or the 90-minute drive up Interstate 95.

Is admissions consistency a good thing? The answer to all college admissions questions is ultimately, “It depends.”

The consistency issue may illustrate the increasing chasm between the college and secondary sides of the desk. For a college counselor, consistency is a valuable, even necessary, tool in advising students properly, helping them understand how to build a list of places to consider and apply.

Without some institutional consistency from year to year, college counseling is no longer a science, no longer an art. At best it becomes a lesson in the problem of induction, where past experience may not predict the future. Just because the sun rose today doesn’t mean it will rise tomorrow, but who wants to lose sleep worrying that it won’t?

For colleges admission consistency may be something to avoid. Just as Division I athletic coaches are trying to recruit someone better the minute an athlete enrolls and sets foot on campus, admissions offices strive to become selective enough that they no longer admit students they would have been excited to admit a year or two earlier. Consistency means predictability, and predictability may not be compatible with admissions mystique. Lack of consistency may become a conscious strategy, hoping that being more selective and unpredictable therefore makes an institution more appealing.

To quote Twain (Shania, not Mark), “That don’t impress me much.” I recognize that I am not the target demographic, but wait-listing a student who should be a clear admit does not make a college or university more desirable or give me confidence in the direction the institution is headed. I am more bothered by the “course correction,” the change in policy in the middle of the admission cycle. In my more cynical moments, I also suspect that many colleges and universities want my students’ applications but not my students.

Why am I so concerned about consistency? Without consistency college admission becomes a game of chance and college counseling a form of fortune-telling. Do we really want that?

The only thing worse than “foolish consistency” is foolish inconsistency.

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Jim Jump is the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, Va. He has been at St. Christopher’s since 1990 and was previously an admissions officer, women’s basketball coach and philosophy professor at the college level. Jim is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.


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