Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Transcript-Optional Admission

I remember the phone call as if it were yesterday, because it was one of the few times in my life that I have been rendered speechless. 

It was the end of a long school day, and on the other end of the line was an exasperated mother.  Her son had been wait-listed at his first choice school, not unexpectedly, and she was calling either for reassurance and advice on strategy or just to vent. In any case, the call was fine until she asked a question for which I had no answer.  “Why do they have to look at his grades?”

Why indeed?  It is probably inaccurate to say that I was speechless, because it was all I could do to refrain from giving her a smart-ass answer that she clearly wouldn’t have appreciated.  Now, however, I think back to her question and realize that her son was born 25 years too soon. Today students who would prefer that colleges not look at their grades can apply to Goucher College.

Several weeks ago Goucher, a liberal-arts college located just outside Baltimore, announced a new application option whereby students can choose to submit a two-minute video instead of a transcript.  Applicants who submit a video in lieu of a transcript will also be expected to submit two pieces of high school work, but the video will be the primary factor influencing Goucher’s admissions decision.

I’ve always liked Goucher (probably mostly because years ago during my admissions days I had a crush on a female admissions staff member there), but my first response when I read the reports about the new option in the Chronicle of Higher Education and InsideHigherEd was to check my calendar to see if I had somehow turned into Rip Van Winkle and slept through seven months of the school year, such that it was already April Fools’ Day (in which case I would have been even farther behind in my rec writing). 

My reaction was not out of the mainstream.  When I told mentioned the Goucher announcement to my seniors and parents while talking about the trends in the admissions world, it was the biggest laugh line of the night.  Several colleagues have interpreted the move as a sign of desperation, and Macalester College President Brian Rosenberg broke the unwritten rule against criticizing other colleges when he wrote an opinion piece for the Chronicle awarding Goucher the prize for dumbest higher-education move.

Plenty of colleges have made submitting standardized test scores optional, but Goucher is the first selective school I’m aware of to make a transcript optional.  I’m sorry, but I don’t see transcript-optional admissions as an idea whose time has come.

That’s not to say that it may not be founded on good assumptions.  An admissions counselor at Goucher was quoted in the Chronicle as saying “Students are more than just numbers,” and I agree whole-heartedly.  I have asked the question, “Are we measuring the right things?” several times in this blog, reflecting that there are non-cognitive, non-academic predictors of success both in college and in life.  But recognizing that grades and scores may provide an incomplete picture of an individual does not mean that eliminating them gives a better picture.

Students are more than just numbers, but so are transcripts.  A transcript tells a student’s story for a discerning reader, from level of rigor to relative strengths and weaknesses (struggles in math, great history student) to upward trend both year-to-year and semester-to-semester.  Reading a transcript requires context, hopefully provided by a school profile and by the information in a letter of recommendation. 

It is one thing to recognize that students are works-in-progress and therefore give less weight to high school grades, and another thing altogether to not ask for a transcript.  There is a difference between making test scores optional and a transcript optional.  Test scores may either confirm or call into question a student’s high school performance, but test scores are supplemental information.  A transcript is essential information for a college.  How much they choose to weigh it is up to them, but there is no excuse for not requiring a transcript.  The one possible exception would be for a college that is itself abolishing grades for its students.  As President Rosenberg from Macalester asks, is Goucher prepared to have its graduates put together a video for employers and graduate schools that summarizes the value of their Goucher education in lieu of grades and transcripts?

Goucher President Jose Antonio Bowen is quoted as hoping that this innovation will increase yield, bringing in more students with “affinity” for Goucher rather than students applying to Goucher as one of many in a shotgun application approach.  He also says that the college application model is broken and maybe even “insane.” 

I think he’s right about that.  The quest for selectivity and prestige has led colleges to attempt to generate more applications, or, more accurately, more rejections.  That has resulted in a vicious circle that doesn’t serve anyone well.  Students panic when they perceive college admission getting harder and respond by applying to more schools.  That makes it harder for colleges to determine when an application is serious, leading to an increased focus on demonstrated interest and more students being placed on Wait Lists, which starts the cycle all over again.  There is an important but difficult conversation to be had about whether the college admissions process works well for students and for colleges and whether it is time for a radical revamping.

If college admissions is broken, making a high school transcript optional is in no way a fix.  Goucher’s new program has generated plenty of attention, and I hope it doesn’t backfire for them, but I don’t see transcript-optional admission as either interesting or positive.


P.S.  My last post on conflict of interest generated several thoughtful comments and questions from readers with other examples of possible of conflict of interest.  As always, I appreciate the feedback, and will do another post reflecting some of those comments.

Two milestones:  Ethical College Admissions will celebrate its second anniversary later this week, while I am in Indianapolis attending NACAC.  It’s been a rewarding journey, maybe the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done professionally.  In addition, the blog just had its 15,000th hit, far beyond my expectations and dreams two years ago.  Thanks for your support—it means a lot.


Thursday, September 11, 2014

Conflict of Interest

One of the consequences of working in college admissions or college counseling is the tendency to view the world primarily through that lens.  It has been more than thirty years since my admissions days, and yet I still find myself giving directions using high schools as landmarks.

So several weeks ago when the national media reported on the ninth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans, I thought back to a very small part of that story.  In the days following Katrina, the admissions office at Tulane University relocated to my home town, Richmond, Virginia, operating out of the offices of enrollment marketing firm Royall and Company.  Tulane’s Dean of Admission and Vice President of Enrollment Management at the time, Dick Whiteside, now works for Royall.

Royall and Company received a mention in the Flagler College investigative report that was the topic of the last ECA post.  Royall had no connection to the data fraud perpetrated by Flagler’s former VP for Enrollment Management, but a second, collateral ethical issue identified in the report involves the former VP’s relationship with Royall.  In November, 2011 he doubled Flagler’s involvement with Royall without getting the required approval from either higher administrators or the Board.  What makes that problematic from an ethical perspective was that he did so at the same time he was being compensated by Royall as a consultant.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I know both Bill Royall and John Nester, the current President of Royall and Company, and consider both friends.  Bill helped establish a mentoring program for young professionals in Potomac and Chesapeake ACAC in memory of his cousin and my close friend Ann Powell, who died of cancer before being able to serve her term as PCACAC President, and her final request of me was that I oversee the development of that program.  John’s son was one of my advisees.  I know and share many of the concerns about the role played by vendors such as Royall and Company in college admissions.)

Is it ever acceptable for an admissions professional to receive compensation from a vendor with whom his or her office is doing business?  I think the answer is a clear “No.”  Even if the admissions person is providing legitimate consulting services, the potential for abuse, or even the perception of conflict of interest, is present and dangerous.

Conflict of interest is most clear and most unsavory when there is a financial arrangement involved.  One of the most troubling facets of the international agent landscape is how many agents represent multiple institutions, and even receive payment both from students and institutions.  How does a student or college employing the agent know that the agent is representing their interests, not giving advice and counsel based on what produces the most economic advantage for the agent?

The potential for conflict of interest is greatest when money is changing hands, but the reality is that all of us should be concerned about conflict of interest most of the time.  The philosopher W.D. Ross said that ethical duties arise out of relationships, and in most situations we are in multiple relationships with multiple roles and potentially multiple interests at stake.
As a college counselor, I serve my students, I serve their parents, I serve my school, and I also serve my own values as a professional and as an ethical individual.  Thankfully I am rarely placed in situations where there is a conflict in what those roles require.  When I am helping a student decide between institutions I need to be careful that I am hearing the student’s voice and not advising him based on what is best for my school’s college list.  When a parent asks me to advise the student to go to a less expensive public option, I have to navigate challenging territory.  My job is not to make the decision, but to advise and help the family come to consensus.  Serving the student’s interests and serving the parent’s interests can lead to conflict of interest when those interests don’t coincide.  It is worth stepping back in the midst of difficult situations to ask whose interests we are serving with a particular course of action.

Conflict of interest is especially dangerous because we have the amazing ability to rationalize our actions and behavior.  That became clear here in Virginia during the recent trial leading to the conviction of former Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife on federal corruption charges for accepting several hundred thousand dollars in gifts and loans from a businessman looking for their help and support with a dietary supplement his company was launching.  The trial can best be described as a soap opera, an embarrassment to the state that included a defense strategy that the couple could not be found guilty of conspiracy due to the fact that they didn’t talk to each other enough to conspire.

There is much about the case that is sad and bizarre and tragic.  I wasn’t a Bob McDonnell fan, but I don’t believe he is corrupt even if it is clear that he was guilty of the charges.  At some level he lost his conflict-of-interest compass, allowing his political ambitions (he was widely talked about as a possible running mate for Mitt Romney in 2012), his dysfunctional marriage (a huge problem for a politician who had run as a family values champion), and his personal financial woes to cloud his judgment and convince himself that he was serving the interest of his constituents by serving the interests of businessman Jonny Williams.

It is at times like these that I most appreciate the vow of poverty I unwittingly took years ago in choosing a non-profit career.  I don’t have to worry about people trying to buy me with golf outings and shopping trips, or paying me as a “consultant,” but that doesn’t mean I’m immune to conflict of interest.  It may be a footnote to the McDonnell and Flagler tragedies, but it’s an ethical issue all of us face.      

Inside Higher Ed Mentions ECA

Last week's post about Flagler College's investigative report into data fraud was mentioned and linked to by the website Inside Higher Ed on Tuesday in it "Around the Web" section.

Thursday, September 4, 2014


Back in February I wrote a post after Flagler College in Florida became the most recent college admitting that admissions statistics have been misreported.  Several weeks ago Flagler released an outside investigative report commissioned by its Board of Trustees that answers in ugly detail the question raised every time there is a new report of a college misreporting admissions data.  “How could this happen?”

The answer at Flagler is “intentional data fraud and misreporting” at the hands of a single individual, former Vice President for Enrollment Management Marc Williar.  Williar, an admissions staff member for 25 years and the VP since 2009, resigned back in February, taking full responsibility for the data fraud. According to the report, forensic accounting analysis indicates that the fraud goes back at least to 2005, much earlier than acknowledged by Williar.

What is different about the Flagler case is that the data fraud involves manipulation of individual student records, not just the freshman class profile.  The report accuses Williar of accessing the electronic database maintained by Flagler for student records to inflate and even fabricate test scores for individual students.  How widespread was the fraud?  Williar is accused of inflating test scores for 2542 students in 2012 and 2013 alone and fabricating 195 others.  The reports states that 99% of the scores entered into the database by Williar over that two-year period were inaccurate.  Apparently no one else on the Flagler campus was involved or even aware of the data manipulation.

The forensic accounting analysis during the investigation didn’t find any “formula” by which scores were manipulated, but it appears that Williar started by determining the class mean he wanted to achieve, then added 50 or 100 points to SAT subscores for individual students.  He inflated class rank statistics by omitting low class ranks.  The inflation in the SAT profile on the 1600 scale for entering Flagler classes was approximately 25 points from 2004-2007, 50 points from 2008-2010, and 85 points over the past three years.

Some takeaways, both questions and conclusions:

1)      I applaud Flagler for publicly releasing the report.  The transparency serves Flagler, the admissions profession, and the public.


2)      It is tempting to think of admissions data manipulation as a victimless crime, hurting only the credibility of U.S. News’s college rankings, but at Flagler the data fraud hurt individual students.  At least several hundred students were misplaced in courses because of the changed individual SAT scores, and in fact that was what led to discovery of the fraud, as a faculty member found discrepancies between student performance in freshman English composition classes and the SAT scores that led to their placement in those courses.

       3)  Is it appropriate to use SAT scores for placement purposes?  I suspect that practice is 
            not uncommon, and during my freshman year in college I was placed in an honors
            freshman English section made up of the students with the highest SAT verbal scores,
            but is the SAT designed to be used to place students in college courses?  I defer to those
            with more expertise in psychometrics than I have, but I wonder if that is a misuse of the


4)      We know from the report how the data fraud occurred, but less about why.  Williar told the investigators that he was trying to “help” the college, but the report concludes that he committed the fraud out of self-interest, as a way to increase both his compensation and his status at the college.  As in previous cases of data misrepresentation, once you start inflating data, additional misrepresentation is required to sustain the deception.


The report found no evidence that Williar’s actions were influenced by pressure or expectations from the Flagler administration or Board.  I don’t know Marc Williar, and his actions are indefensible, but the narrative of the rogue admissions officer doesn’t ring true.  I absolutely believe that no one in a position of authority told him to change student records or manipulate profile data, but I also suspect that his ethical lapses were encouraged by the pressures, subtle or explicit, placed on admissions offices to achieve multiple and challenging metric benchmarks.  It is no longer a successful year to bring in a full freshman class.  You must also be more selective, raise SAT scores, increase diversity, and lower the discount rate.  Those are all worthwhile goals, but an institutional climate that focuses first and foremost on those metrics is unhealthy and partly to blame when data fraud occurs.


5)      As I reported back in February, there have long been signs that Flagler was engaged in creative accounting, not with regard to test scores, but with regard to admit rate.  Back in the early 1990s Flagler was reporting to U.S. News an acceptance rate lower than that for MIT, Duke, and Penn.  I’m willing to entertain the notion that it might have actually been more selective than those places, but the cynic in me says that it was playing games in how it counted applications.  If that’s the case, the conditions that led to the manipulation of data have been present for a long time.


6)      There is one other ethical issue mentioned in the investigative report that doesn’t seem related to the data fraud, and I will discuss it in my next post.


How many isolated cases constitute evidence of an epidemic, and how do we determine whether a disease is contagious?  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization have had to deal with those questions this year with regard to Ebola. It may be time for the college admissions profession to address those questions with regard to data fraud and misrepresentation.  Hopefully the Flagler investigation will help prevent the next outbreak.


Monday, August 18, 2014

Is "Sales" a Dirty Word?

Is it time for college admissions to acknowledge and embrace its role as higher education’s sales division? Or is “sales” a dirty word that threatens the ethical standards that make college admissions a profession? Two posts in Eric Hoover’s Head Count blog for The Chronicle of Higher Education during the same week at the end of July highlighted the two horns of that dilemma.

The first reported on a presentation at the ACT Enrollment Planners Conference by Brian William Niles, founder of Target X, a CRM (Customer Relationship Management) company for higher education.  His presentation was titled, “Five Dirty Words You Need to Start Using (in Admissions),” with the five words being “customer,” “sales,” “competition,” “experience,” and “accountability.”  At least some in his audience found those words as offensive and obscene as network censors once found George Carlin’s Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.

That post was followed several days later by a post about the release of a NACAC report, “Career Paths for Admission Officers: A Survey Report.”  That report, an interesting look at the challenges faced by our profession in attracting, training, and retaining good people, revealed that the culture of sales, with increasing pressure to generate revenue and potential collateral damage to ethical standards, is among the greatest concerns for members of our profession.

The tension within college admissions between sales and counseling is not new.  It was present when I entered the profession nearly forty years ago, never dreaming I would stay for longer than a couple of years  (a common story, according to the NACAC survey).  Even then there were admissions counselors using admissions as a stepping stone for a career in sales and others with a counseling orientation.    

Niles’ ACT presentation argued that admissions offices should embrace their sales missions, that thinking of admissions staff as sales force will lead to better training as well as better understanding of the needs and wants of prospective students.  He also argued that admissions officers should master the “elevator pitch,” able to explain their institution in 30 seconds.

I agree that it’s foolish to pretend that college admissions isn’t partly about sales, especially at institutions that are tuition-driven. But I don’t see evidence that admissions offices are giving short shrift to the sales dimension. I see far more young admissions roadrunners today arrive for school visits well prepared to do their sales presentation, but unable to converse with either students or counselors about anything other than talking points. 

The dinosaur in me wishes that there was less sales and more counseling in college admissions.  Admissions reps, especially those who are young, have credibility and influence with high school students, and I wish they would use that power to educate students about the admissions process and about the college experience.

Are the admissions-as-sales and admissions-as-counseling world views irreconcilable, an Armageddon where one side must win and the other lose?  Or is there a balance to be struck between the two?

There is nothing inherently wrong with admitting that higher education is a business or that there is a sales component to college admissions.  But are they more than that? 

Colleges and universities need revenue to stay in existence, but a college education is an experience, not a product, and the mission of any college or university is broader and more important than generating revenue or profit.  Economic considerations are instrumental to other ends, not the ends themselves.

College admissions has considered itself a profession dating back to NACAC’s founding more than 75 years ago.  Professionalism implies dedication to a set of values that extend beyond institutional interest, values that are the underpinning of the NACAC Statement of Principles of Good Practice.  As a profession, we recognize that we serve the public interest and not just our own interest.  Enrollment and revenue are important for our employers and for our institution’s health, but we have a more important charge to help young people make important, life-changing decisions about their futures.

From an ethical perspective, the issue is not whether an admissions office is engaged in sales but what that entails.  Are the admissions staffers engaging in ethical sales practices, trying to meet the student’s/customer’s needs, or are they trying to close a sale/build enrollment at any cost?

The difference lies in whose interests the admissions officer acts.  Clearly there is a responsibility to the institution, but that is not the only ethical responsibility present.  There is also a responsibility to the student’s best interests, and there is a responsibility to the profession as well. 

Many years ago I was hired as the Director of Admissions for an independent school that was in the midst of declining enrollment.  On my first day I met with a young man who was interested in transferring from another private school for his senior year.  He was a full pay, and he could have helped our football team, but his transcript told me he would struggle to pass math and graduate, so I advised him to remain at his current school.  Later that day my secretary pulled me aside and told me that the school had never before discouraged a student from enrolling. 

Allowing that student to come and fail could have damaged both him and the school.  Given the declining enrollment it would have been easy but short-sighted to admit him. The way to build enrollment in the long run was to build trust in the school program, including the admissions process.

The “sales culture” identified in the NACAC report isn’t about sales.  It’s a different gift from the business world, the pursuit of short-term goals in a way that’s short-sighted and self-serving.  College admissions is founded on public trust, and that trust is put in jeopardy whenever we act out of our interests rather than the public interest.  The dirty word is not sales, but rather self-interest.

So how do we defend our profession from an invasive species like the sales culture?  One of the answers is contained in the NACAC report.  The future of our profession lies in our ability to attract, train, and retain the next generation of leaders, counselors and admissions professionals who see our work as a noble calling and who are committed first and foremost to serving students.

The other solution is finding a way to reach out to our supervisors, the new generation of college presidents and provosts, and educate them about the values of the college admissions profession.  I suggested several years ago that NACAC develop programming for that constituency, and I continue to think that’s a good idea.  


Saturday, June 21, 2014

ECA on Holiday

Ethical College Admissions (the blog, not the concept) is going on summer break, to return in August.  It’s been a good year, with no shortage of ethical issues to tackle and recognition for the blog in places like the Washington Post,, and I am grateful to all those who read the blog, with special appreciation to those who comment either privately or publicly.  Your interest and support means a lot.

Part of the reason for shutting down now is that I have an opportunity this summer to do something I have never been able to do.  Beginning tomorrow my wife and I will be going “on holiday” in Europe for five weeks.  We will be spending four weeks in the Tuscan city of Lucca, combining a writing vacation for me (unless I find the Italian lifestyle and ambiance so appealing that I give up on that plan) and some day trips.  We’ll follow that with a week of travel through the Swiss Alps by train and on to Paris and London.

My plan (subject to change) is to blog about the trip.  If you have interest in following our adventures, you can access the blog at Ciao!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Skepticism and Impressionism

Back in graduate school I took a class in philosophical skepticism.  It met on Wednesday afternoons in a windowless room in the basement of the business building, and every week we would spend three hours discussing topics like “How do I know that the chair I’m sitting in exists?” (Does It really matter as long as I can sit in it?) This was long before Donald Rumsfeld talked about “known knowns,” “known unknowns,” and “unknown unknowns,” but the class would have been right up his alley.  I lived in perpetual fear that someone would walk into the class by accident, hear our discussion, and then padlock us in.

Early in my college-counseling career I was introduced to a college counselor whom I found both impressive and intimidating at the same time.  He had an encyclopedic knowledge of colleges that I couldn’t hope to match.  Name any college or university, and he could provide multiple factoids about its programs and campus culture.  He could wax eloquently about the differences between the education programs at Murray State and Morehead State despite the fact that he had never lived or worked in or anywhere close to Kentucky. I couldn’t decide if he was full of (rhymes with) it or simply a bigger admissions geek than I was (and am).   

Over the past couple of weeks both of those came to mind as two events made me think about the distinction between what we know and what we think we know.  One was an interesting discussion thread on the NACAC Exchange, and the other was the process of finishing up lists of college suggestions for my juniors.

A counselor posted on the Exchange asking for suggestions of colleges that will be accepting and have support for a transgender student.  The ability to get help generating a list of options for a student with special needs or circumstances has always been one of the best features of the Exchange and its ancestor, the E-list, and this particular question seemed much more appropriate than those who ask for northeastern colleges with an English major.   

The conversation that ensued was vibrant and worthwhile.  Several people suggested liberal-arts colleges with culturally liberal reputations, and one regular poster recommended that the student look at “activist” schools.  Those generated responses asking why one would assume that a transgender student is either liberal or activist, or would gravitate to those kinds of places.

The more interesting part of the discussions came after another counselor posted that he was “nervous” about throwing names around and “branding” institutions, especially when the recommendations as good fits for the student weren’t coming from representatives of the institutions themselves. Some of the nervousness clearly was related to the fact that the query had to do with a transgender student, but some also related to how easily the common wisdom becomes stereotype.  A number of years ago I met Ted Fiske, editor of the Fiske Guide to Colleges.  “How do you find the time to visit all these colleges?” he was asked.  “I never visit colleges,” he responded.  “I send out questionnaires, and if I get two back, I can tell you exactly what a place is like.”  At some level he’s probably right, but that answer bothers me nonetheless, and it reveals the limitations of guidebooks and other mass-market sources of information.  They are based on a limited spectrum of opinions, and you are unlikely to find a take on any college that’s contrary to what the public already believes.

It turned out that several of those recommending colleges had previously worked at those places.  Another counselor observed that she would be skeptical of suggestions posted on College Confidential, but trusted the professional expertise and judgment of the Exchange.  And voices such as Jon Boeckenstedt, Jon Reider, and Scott White (at least several of whom are regular readers of this blog) weighed in with thoughtful comments about the dangers of treating any information, even that from knowledgeable colleagues, as gospel truth.

I found the discussion poignant with because I was working on college lists.  It is easy for many families to see “The List” as a report card on their child (and perhaps on their parenting) and to take umbrage at the inclusion or exclusion of some name among the recommended colleges. I have always seen a college list as suggestions designed to expand horizons rather than a definitive judgment of where I think a student can or should go to college.  Putting together a college list is more art than science, and impressionist art at that.  After many years and many campus visits, I “know” a lot of colleges, but so much of that knowledge is based on impressions.  I don’t have the expertise to know with certainty that one institution is better for a student than another, and if one of the tenets of “fit” is that college selection is personal, then what I think is best may not be what the student thinks is best.

That raises a broader question (regular readers of this blog know that we always love the broader question).  What is the essence of good college counseling? Is it about being an expert, a provider of answers, or about being a trail guide and coach, an asker of questions and provider of context and background?  Is the currency of college counseling knowledge or wisdom? 

To some degree that debate mirrors the debate taking place in education about whether good teaching is about being a sage or a coach.  But it is especially timely for those of us in the college counseling trenches.  There is a perfect storm on the horizon.  At the same time that colleges are coming up with a myriad of application options and deadlines—Early Decision, Early Action, Priority Deadlines, Snap Apps—we have a generational change in both students and parents, and it puts new demands on college counseling professionals.  We may increasingly be asked to be managers and strategists rather than counselors, and that will carry it with expectations that, like the colleague who intimidated me with his command of college minutiae, we have specialized knowledge about programs, scholarships, and the games that admissions offices are playing to maximize revenue and selectivity/prestige.

I hope that day won’t arrive soon (or at least after I’ve retired).  But it’s a call for our profession to think about what we know and what we can’t know and be clear about the difference with students and parents. 

We need to follow our own advice.  Just as we would advise a student not to trust the opinion about a college from a classmate with different tastes, we should treat any source of information as one source and not definitive, and we should always understand the difference between what we know and what we assume.