“The gloves have come off,” said Angel Pérez, vice president for enrollment and student success at Trinity College in Connecticut. He laments this trend. “You’re talking about a scenario where colleges need to enroll students at any cost.”
But wait! There’s more!
Put down a deposit and, at some schools, your tuition will never go up. Like to sleep in? Other colleges will give you early-registration privileges so you don’t get stuck with morning classes. Still others are throwing in free food, free football tickets, even free books autographed by celebrity faculty members in residence.
All of this is driven, of course, by the existential danger that too few students will sign on for college this fall because of the pandemic, which is wrecking family finances and raising fears that campuses will not reopen anyway, forcing a continuation of online teaching.
In a twist of timing, some of the inducements are a consequence of a Justice Department action that forced college admissions officers to drop key parts of their professional code of ethics, which prohibited many of these kinds of appeals and banned colleges from pursuing one another’s students.
“It’s incredibly ironic that this is really the first class that’s been affected by that change,” said Gregory Eichhorn, vice president for enrollment and student success at the University of New Haven, who called what is happening this spring a “free-for-all.”
Joan Koven, an educational consultant outside Philadelphia who helps high school seniors get into college, was at the meeting of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, or NACAC, in September, when the ethics code was changed in response to Justice Department pressure.
“Everybody was sort of, like, ‘Oh, my God, what just happened? Fasten your seat belt because it’s going to be an all-out crazy time with people dangling incentives,’ ” Koven said. “And then we have this [pandemic crisis] bursting open.”
Eliminating previous constraints on recruiting may, in fact, be encouraging competition that could benefit consumers. The ethics rules had blocked colleges from offering inducements to anyone who had committed to another institution or from trying to get students already enrolled at one to transfer.
But while such factors as more financial aid and bigger discounts might benefit applicants who know how to get them or have parents or college counselors who do, they’re likely to elude those who need them most: low-income, first-generation students. If they even had access to college counselors in their high schools, they do not now because they’re isolated at home.
“The Justice Department’s idea was for some people to be able to achieve a lower net cost,” said Madeleine Rhyneer, vice president at the enrollment consulting firm EAB. But “those who are best able to understand this opportunity are the ones who don’t need a lower net cost, as opposed to people of lower socioeconomic status, who really do.”
Because colleges are no longer banned from pursuing students who commit to other schools by May 1, the traditional deadline day (moved by some colleges this year to June 1), the changes also guarantee that the already-stressful admissions period will stretch well into the summer, with recruiters trying to steal students from one another.
Some institutions, including Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania, have even reopened their application windows.
“It’s going to be a bidding-war kind of scenario,” said George Wolf, vice president for enrollment management at Siena Heights University in Michigan.
Thanks to years of declining enrollment that already had made it hard for colleges to fill their classes, there were signs of this bidding war as early as when the admission season opened.
High school seniors who agreed to be admitted early if accepted — which helps institutions lock in part of their enrollment — found themselves being offered arrays of sweeteners that were previously discouraged by the NACAC code of ethics.
Those who were accepted and paid a deposit by Dec. 1 under the “Preferred Admission” process at Colorado Christian University, for instance, were guaranteed an additional $1,000-a-year scholarship. Applicants who took that route at High Point University in North Carolina were offered premium rooms (“Worried about having a hall bathroom? Select the perfect dorm in your new home!”); early move-in (“Skip the long lines”); early registration (“Don’t want 7:50 a.m. classes?”); and preferred parking (“Worried about where you’ll park your car, or if you’ll even be able to find an available space? Relax!”).
“Even before coronavirus, we were seeing very aggressive tactics,” Rhyneer said.
Then came the pandemic, which forced campuses to shut down, threw millions of Americans out of work and prompted students to reassess their college choices.
About a quarter of high school seniors who already picked colleges are reconsidering where to enroll, a survey by the higher education research firm SimpsonScarborough has found; 20 percent say it is likely or highly likely that they won’t go at all.
The singular goal now is to get students to pay their deposits for the fall semester — and stay put after that.
“We’re seeing some great ideas out there and some desperate ideas” to achieve this, Eichhorn said.
Admitted applicants at Albion College in Michigan are being entered in a sweepstakes once they put down their deposits. Prizes include free room and board for a semester, a $250 credit toward textbooks and free parking for a year.
The college also just announced it is giving free tuition to and waiving fees for students from Michigan families with incomes under $65,000; families that make more than that will get up to $136,000 worth of financial aid.
“If you don’t have people in your dorms, eating your food, you’re losing money,” said Robert Ruiz, a former admissions director and now vice president for strategic enrollment at the consulting firm LiaisonEDU.
But the scale of these kinds of deals worries some admissions officers.
“Some of the things that I’m hearing are almost crazy,” said Wolf, at Siena Heights. “I’m wondering how they’re going to survive by giving these things away.”
Even before this year, institutions were collectively handing back more than half of the tuition they collected from their full-time freshmen in the form of discounts or financial aid, according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers.
This spring, “I am seeing higher discounting than I’ve ever seen before, and by institutions that I’m really surprised are discounting that much,” said Trinity’s Pérez. “That is not a recipe for long-term success.”
The next battle will be among recruiters even going after students who have already committed elsewhere and trying to persuade those enrolled at other schools to transfer. These moves, too, were banned before but are now allowed.
“Summer’s going to be especially brutal, because schools are going to be desperate,” Eichhorn said.
Many colleges are already making overtures to students who had applied in earlier years but went elsewhere, asking them whether they would like to transfer and offering much more generous financial aid and no loss of credits.
“Because of the changes that were made by NACAC, we can go to students who are two years into Michigan State University or Eastern Michigan University and recruit them,” Wolf said. “That would have been viewed as an unethical practice.”
He said he doesn’t necessarily approve of this, but “now that it’s reality, we’re going to have to adapt to that and, frankly, my job is to make sure we’re as good or better [at it] as everybody else.”
Rivals will be coming after his school, too, Wolf said. To block this, his college and others are trying more quickly to cement relationships with students, offering them free for-credit online summer courses.
Todd Rinehart, vice chancellor for enrollment at the University of Denver and president-elect of NACAC, worries about the potential inequity: “If practices like these accelerate, who are we leaving behind?”
He added: “Low-income and first-generation families don’t know they should be reaching out to colleges and asking for more money.”
One new tool just unveiled is meant to help less well-connected students navigate this process; called SwiftStudent and produced by several nonprofit organizations and foundations, it automatically generates an appeal to a college on a student’s behalf requesting more financial aid.
It’s too soon to know how effective the incentives being offered this year to college applicants will be.
And most of the incentives being offered assume that campuses will reopen on schedule, Ruiz pointed out, adding, “And that’s very much up in the air. And if they’re not going to be on the campus this fall, all the things we thought were important to them won’t be important.”
Either way, students and their families are in for a summer of salesmanship from colleges frantic to fill seats.
Said Wolf: “It’s going to be survival of the fittest.”