Admissions & Student Aid

Where Else Are You Applying? Colleges Can't Ask Applicants Much Longer

October 04, 2015

Colleges soon must stop asking prospective students where else they are applying on admissions applications, according to new ethical guidelines approved late last week.

On Saturday the National Association for College Admission Counseling revised its “mandatory practices” to forbid member colleges to include the question in formal, written communications with students. The new policy says colleges must “not ask candidates, their schools, their counselors, or others to list or rank their college or university preferences on applications or other documents.” The change, effective next year, will apply to the recruitment of students applying to enroll in the fall of 2017.

But prompting applicants to reveal their preferences causes anxiety among students, many college counselors have said. Their concern: The questions put applicants in an awkward situation. Should they list colleges in order of preference, or put the place that’s asking first? Is it OK to exaggerate in the name of strategy?

“It was refreshing to see colleges and universities willing to sacrifice a key data point in the interest of doing what is best for students,” Todd Rinehart, director of admission at the University of Denver, said after the association voted to change its policy. “Students … will no longer have to strategize when submitting applications or responding to surveys.”

The revised standards also apply to communications with admitted students and those placed on wait lists, the association said. Some colleges survey the applicants they accept, hoping to determine who’s most likely to enroll; some query wait-listed students. In the future, admissions offices must not ask such students to list other colleges they are thinking about.

That doesn’t mean colleges can’t assess a student’s intentions in other ways. “You can always gauge interest in your own institution,” said Mr. Rinehart, who is chairman of NACAC’s Admission Practices Committee. “Very interested? Somewhat interested? Not interested?”

Although many admissions deans and counselors applauded the change, some enrollment officials expressed mixed feelings. “I understand that many felt like this is a question that could lead to abuses,” said W. Kent Barnds, vice president for enrollment, communication, and planning at Augustana College, in Illinois.

Although Augustana has asked accepted students where it ranked among their options (top choice? top three? top five?), it no longer asks applicants where else they are applying. Even so, Mr. Barnds described the question as useful. “What is disappointing is that a question that’s been asked for years to understand context has come to be perceived as a question that requires a strategy on the part of the student,” he said. “The question, when asked on the application or verbally, helped me and many others understand a student’s search.”

The new policy covers only official documents and surveys. Whether it’s OK to ask the question during a conversation is murky. It’s “discouraged,” Mr. Rinehart said, though in some cases appropriate. During a face-to-face chat with an admissions officer, for instance, a prospective student is likely to mention the colleges she’s considering. It might seem only natural, or just plain polite, to ask which ones she likes the most.

Eric Hoover writes about admissions trends, enrollment-management challenges, and the meaning of Animal House, among other issues. He’s on Twitter @erichoov, and his email address is eric.hoover@chronicle.com.