When Colleges Act Like Businesses: Is It Ethical?
I recently came across an article that highlighted a troubling practice: In order to meet their enrollment and net revenue targets, some colleges are reaching out and offering more money to students who did not respond to their acceptance offers, after those students have already made decisions to enroll at other colleges and after the official decision deadline. Here I review what makes the practice unethical, and also present counterarguments that deserve to be considered.
1) Violates Published Deadlines. Colleges present themselves as nurturing good citizens, and good citizens play by generally agreed upon rules. Colleges that make representations about their deadlines are supposed to stand by them. By reaching out to students and changing their financial aid terms, these institutions change the rules of the game, manipulate students’ decisions, and entice students to renege on their commitments to other colleges.
2) Reopens a College Decision Process. Students are forced to revisit what can be an agonizing decision process. As one example, colleges may offer more money but not enough to make it affordable.
3) Makes Students Narrowly Money Minded. Importantly, the practice puts money front and center, making it a determining factor for why a student would choose one school over another, (I compare this to someone who takes a job solely for the salary without regard to the mission or methods of the employer.) Schools that dangle money likely are not a student’s first choice school, and students who accept such offers likely have compromised other possibly more valid considerations.
4) Turns Students into Commodities. Students literally become something that can be negotiated, haggled over, and bought. Colleges are supposed to offer an education, not be bazaars.
5) Takes Advantage of Students and Other Colleges. Finally, colleges that dangle money after the decision deadline engage in a bait and switch, if not a price-gouging scheme. By holding back funds until the last minute, these colleges can tactically collect as much tuition revenue as possible and in the process take advantage of other colleges who have played by the rules and locked in their commitments.
For these reasons, one might assert that if the college cannot make it ethically, it should go out of business. But are there reasons to think that the practice is not actually unethical?
1) Giving an Option. Looked at another way, these colleges do not force students to compromise on their values but give students a chance to re-evaluate them. Because the college has more unfilled seats than it expected, it now has the flexibility to offer stronger discounts to students. There may be nothing nefarious nor manipulative about this fact. Indeed students also may be better able to take advantage of collegiate opportunities.
2) All Colleges Compete for Students. Colleges often compete for students based on less than ideal considerations, including beautiful landscaping or gleaming residential and gym amenities – unnecessary expenses that drive up the cost of college. Colleges also may match financial aid packages of a competitor, even if a student may have initiated the conversation.
3) Mission-Minded. Such tactics increase the likelihood that the campus can survive; offer an education that is worthy; and make an educational opportunity accessible to a broader swath of the population.
How can we reconcile these competing arguments? Having very briefly laid out some of the dimensions to this ethical issue, I suggest that colleges can be transparent about the role of money in their enterprises. For example, with regard to this specific issue, colleges can explicitly declare:
-Whether they will or won’t re-open financial aid considerations after the decision deadline. In that way, all players will know the situations they may confront; and
-Whether they allow students to make multiple deposits, and whether they actively rescind admission offers to students discovered to have made multiple deposits.
Going beyond the issue under discussion, colleges should also be candid about other less than ideal practices, such as: (i) whether they “gap” students by admitting students with aid that falls short of a student’s financial need, (ii) engage in “need-sensitive” admissions, (iii) give preferences to legacies, (iv) allow donations to influence offers of admissions, (v) offer merit aid to attract financial returns rather than to reward academic performance, or (vi) lower admission standards for athletes.
Such candor would allow us to open up a conversation about whether practices that may be appropriate in business are also suitable in higher education, and whether compromises in this regard align with the ethical fiber of higher education.
Barbara Hou is a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.