Admission Practices Case Studies

Chair: Dale Bittinger, University of Maryland Baltimore County (MD)

Vice Chair:  Casey Zimmer, Sanford School (DE)

PCACAC Admissions Practices Committee is excited for the return of our Case Study Program. This program is an educational effort to proactively explore ethical issues that might face professionals involved in the college admissions process. 

With the reinvigoration of this program, cases will typically be in one of two formats: 1. Celebrating an example of a model ethical approach, or 2. Offering and exploring an ethically challenging situation. In both cases, we will use NACAC’s Guide to Ethical Practice in College Admissions as the lens through which to view the situation. The NACAC guide is built on the following core principles: Education, Access and Equity, Professionalism, Collegiality, Collaboration, Trust, Social Responsibility.

April 2021 Case

Situation: With the 2020-2021 admissions cycle being thrown into disarray with various challenges, the Director of Admissions at East-West-Central U (EWCU) has faced many hurdles as she leads her team towards enrolling a freshman class. Despite seniors applying later than normal and a delayed priority admission deadline, application numbers seem to be tracking similarly to numbers from previous years. However, in a recent meeting with her supervisors, the Director explained that predicting yield will be very difficult for numerous reasons. Because of housing and classroom space, the college does not want to overenroll the freshman class. Therefore, the university’s administration has encouraged the Director to be conservative in admitting students and to run a waitlist to build the class up to the target number. The Director has readily agreed, but now faces a new challenge: EWCU has never had a waitlist and she is unsure of how to implement this plan. What options does she have to support building an ethical waitlist?

Thoughts to Consider: The core principles of NACAC’s Guide to Ethical Practice are a starting point. Building a waitlist program that is student centered and focused on the seven principles--- in particular, Education, Collaboration, Trust and Social Responsibility—while also serving the needs of EWCU, is paramount to the institution. Thus, the focus for the admission office should be on clear, transparent, and timely communications with students.

More specifically, Section II The Responsible Practice of Admissions, Section B specifically discusses waitlists:

Wait lists help colleges manage their enrollments and give students who were not initially admitted another opportunity to be considered for admission. By placing a student on the wait list, a college does not initially offer or deny admission but extends to the candidate the possibility of admission should space become available. Timely offers of admission from the wait list serve both institutions and students.

Recommended Practices for Implementation Colleges should:

  • Include the historical range in numbers or percentages of students offered admission from the wait list and the availability of housing and financial aid with an initial wait list offer.
  • Not require a deposit or set a fee for remaining on a wait list.
  • Allow students who are offered admission from the waitlist after May 1 at least 48 hours before requiring a verbal or written commitment to enroll.
  • Notify students of their financial aid offer and availability of housing before requiring a commitment to enroll.
  • Notify all wait list candidates of the final decision no later than August 1.

In EWCU’s case, not all information, such as waitlist history, can be known. But, EWCU can acknowledge that having a waitlist is new, that they will inform the student as soon as possible, and that they expect or do not expect to have housing/financial aid available. If they move to the waitlist, EWCU should be prepared to provide financial aid/housing information to admitted students before expecting a student to make an enrollment decision. And, if the movement is after May 1, EWCU should give the students time (at least 48 hours) to make a thoughtful and informed decision. Not only will these actions serve the student, EWCU will be served in the long run as the institution seeks to graduate enrolling students.

EWCU should also consider whether they will utilize different admission standards to pull students from the waitlist than those used for admission, and whether or not they feel it is ethical or appropriate to share this information in advance. For example, if EWCU states in admission brochures that they are "need-blind", but plans to choose students from the waitlist based, even in part, on the student's ability to pay tuition, should EWCU have an ethical responsibility to share that shift in admission priorities to waitlisted students? Or, if EWCU plans to use demonstrated interest for the waitlist, but does not do so for the general admissions process, should EWCU explain this to waitlisted students? Again, NACAC’s Guide provides some direction here. According to Section I A. Truthfullness and Transparency in the Admissions Process, “Colleges should make publicly available comprehensive, accurate, and current information concerning: Factors considered in making admission, financial aid, and scholarship decisions.”