A college admissions counselors association just changed its code of ethics. What happens now?

Under pressure from the Justice Department, members of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) voted last weekend to remove parts of the group’s ethics code that federal officials said could stifle competition and limit students’ opportunities to get the best price for their education, The Wall Street Journal reports.

According to Inside Higher Ed, the deleted provisions stated that NACAC member institutions must not offer incentives such as special housing, better financial aid guarantees, or special scholarships exclusive to early decision applicants. Furthermore, once students commit to a college (by no later than May 1), “other colleges must respect that choice and cease recruiting them.” NACAC also eliminated a provision that prevented colleges from soliciting transfer applications from a previous year’s applicant or prospect pool.

The vote to delete these sections took place during the NACAC’s 75th national conference last Saturday. The association—which represents college counselors and admissions teams at approximately 1,700 colleges and universities—has been under investigation by the Justice Department for nearly two years over whether its ethics code violated antitrust laws. Prior to the vote, NACAC informed its members that the financial burden of an ongoing investigation and possible litigation would threaten NACAC’s future.

Mixed reactions

Critics of the decision to revise NACAC’s code have voiced concern that without those provisions in place, colleges may look to poach students who accept offers elsewhere, by offering them more enticing financial-aid packages. Resulting changes could make it more difficult for schools to predict enrollment and encourage them to require steeper deposits to deter students from heading elsewhere.

NACAC President-Elect Todd Rinehart told The Chronicle of Higher Education that he worries that “instead of making an informed choice to apply early to their No. 1 college, some students will apply early somewhere just because they were offered special incentives.”

Louis L. Hirsh, a former director of admissions at the University of Delaware and a member of the committee that updated NACAC’s ethics code a few years ago, said, “Our focus should be on how to make this process less stressful and more meaningful for students, who should not have colleges badger them after they’ve decided which college they’re going to. This document was created to protect people who are vulnerable, and that’s what the Justice Department missed.”

However, some NACAC member colleges, including art schools, welcomed the new changes, saying that the provisions “hindered their ability to compete with nonmember institutions that play by different rules.”

The decision could also help improve equity in admissions by making the May 1 deadline less definitive, Education Dive notes. “Often the most vulnerable students are later to the admissions process,” said Annie Reznik, executive director of the Coalition for College. John Barnhill, assistant vice president for academic affairs at Florida State University, says he now expects schools with low enrollment levels to “actively recruit into the summer and beyond.”

Individual schools will decide what comes next

Stefanie Niles, NACAC’s departing president and the vice president for enrollment and communication at Ohio Wesleyan, told Inside Higher Ed that, even though NACAC removed its rules surrounding early decision and student poaching, individual colleges can still choose to uphold the original guidelines. Ohio Wesleyan intends to do just that, she said. NACAC officials also told The Journal that they still expect the Justice Department to file a complaint and consent decree, at which point “a federal court would determine whether to issue a formal court order to enforce the decree and require that the code of ethics be edited.”

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