College Recruiting: Big Changes Made By the DOJ and What That Means For You

college recruiting

In mid-December, the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) was sued by the Department of Justice (DOJ) for the alleged violation of antitrust rules. Not that we like to think of higher education as a business, but… well it is. And the DOJ decided that admissions and college recruiting might not be functioning in a way that always encourages competition and protects the consumer. That’s you.

It didn’t make headline news because amidst all the other chaos in national news these days, it’s not exactly headline-grabbing stuff. It was also because the suit was settled the same day.

NACAC had already met in September at their annual conference and pretty much agreed that the DOJ had a point. The organization voted to remove the provisions in question from their Code of Ethics and Professional Practice. Almost all universities in the country adhere to these guidelines when recruiting students.

RELATED: ‘Poaching Students: Once Taboo, Now OK’ from The Chronicle

I was a NACAC member for years and still maintain close professional relationships with many current members of NACAC. I can tell you most counselors acknowledged they had to change the provisions but voted to do so reluctantly. They are more than slightly worried as to what this might mean for the profession and for students.

Incentives and Admissions

First, they removed a provision that stated that colleges couldn’t offer incentives to encourage students to apply early decision. Remember, Early Decision means that the student is committing to attend said institution if offered admission. Students who apply Early Decision to an institution are essentially stating, “You offer me admission, I will deposit and show up in August. I won’t even apply to other colleges or if I have, I’ll withdraw the apps.” Colleges like ED applicants because they’re (almost) sure bets.

The removal of the provision now means that colleges can offer, say, special scholarships or better housing options or early course registration or any number of other perks IF students apply ED and commit to attending that institution before applying to or hearing decisions from any other schools. If a student has always had a dream college or conducted the college search early, this might not sound like a bad deal at all. If, however, the student is a more typical high school senior and still exploring options, then buckle up buttercup. The pressure is now on to start that college search sooner and make the final choice earlier. As if high school students didn’t have enough to do already!

At Any Cost… Literally

Also keep in mind this means that students could be committing to attend an institution before they even know what their financial aid package will be. So, “sorry ‘bout your luck” to those who needed to know how much it was going to cost before making the decision. If students need to know their financial aid package before committing to an institution then they really can’t apply ED since most colleges don’t have aid packages completed before the ED deadlines. This essentially means if students aren’t wealthy enough to say “sure, I promise to attend no matter what it’s going to cost me” they’re more likely to miss out on these special incentives that might be offered to all the kids who could commit up front.

Poaching Students

Another set of newly removed provisions had to do with “poaching” students. Remember, in the business world competition is a good thing. Colleges should be competing for students. There were provisions in the CEPP that said institutions couldn’t knowingly contact students who had already deposited at other institutions and try to change their minds. All students are fair game now. It used to be that “National Decision Deadline Day” of May 1st was the line in the sand. Recruitment efforts ended on May 1st. Now, even after colleges know students have chosen another institution, they can dangle any number of carrots for as long as they wish (presumably throughout the summer or until they fill their class). Said carrots could include things like extra scholarship dollars, Honors membership, special dorms, etc.

While students may have thought they had weighed all of the information and made an informed decision prior to May 1st, they might now be receiving special incentive offers throughout the summer. And they might not be small. They could potentially tip the scales to the point that another institution eventually makes more sense. Ever seen the show “Let’s Make a Deal?” Colleges that haven’t met their enrollment targets can now channel their inner Wayne Brady at the last minute. Let’s see if the contestant (i.e. student) might change her mind before move-in day! Maybe they’ll pass on what’s behind Curtain #2 if they whip out a few more thousand dollar bills.

Summer Melt Gets Hot

Summer melt is the term colleges use to describe students who deposited and indicated they were coming but then changed their minds or just didn’t show up. Unless they’ve overenrolled, colleges don’t particularly like “melt.”

If a college plans on 1,500 students enrolling, they don’t want to have only 1,100 show up at move-in. They count on the tuition for some pretty important stuff like paying their professors and electric bills.

The removal of these provisions makes it much more likely that colleges that did not meet their enrollment target will “poach” students throughout the summer. That poaching will increase melt significantly at other institutions who may have thought they were set. It’s yet to be determined how colleges will help mitigate this anticipated flux.


One thought is that colleges will make more offers of admission just presuming they’ll lose more students than usual throughout the summer. The risk here is that if you don’t lose more students, then you now have a housing crisis too. Over-enrollment can be just as devastating as under-enrollment.

Another school of thought, though, is that colleges will make it less attractive to change your mind. Currently, most deposits (which are non-refundable) to reserve your space are a few hundred dollars. Students who have “melted” in the past just make the choice to lose the deposit. It’s a bummer, but a few hundred dollars loss in one place could be easy to absorb with other incentives. Some admission professionals are now suggesting that in order to make it harder for students to change their minds colleges may increase deposits significantly to a level that most families aren’t willing to lose….possibly even to the thousand(s).

High Stakes Negotiation By Students

Another concern is that this whole process could devolve into something like the negotiation when investigating changing cell providers. “I know I deposited here but ABCollege just offered me [whatever] so I think I’m going to withdraw my acceptance here…. unless you want to match their offer or perhaps offer me [something better].” This goes back to the DOJ’s intent. Potentially, the consumer/student could have more power to negotiate better deals either actively or passively.

These changes are all new. The truth is that we don’t know exactly how colleges and college recruiting programs are going to react. It most likely it won’t be a universal response. Just because the provisions that prohibited these actions were removed doesn’t mean all colleges will forge ahead. Many colleges are saying they still won’t do it, even if the rules now allow it. But my guess is that eventually most colleges will adapt some new strategies. Once one starts the game, others will realize they have to play along. While it may feel unsettling to the student who had thought they were done, this new landscape for increased competition may create more opportunity and choice.

Read more about the details of the provisions removed in this article by Scott Jaschik in “Inside Higher Ed.”

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