Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Survivor, Law School Version—the Future for Undergraduate Admissions?

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

School counselors deal with all kinds of changes in college admissions. This year alone, we’ve transitioned to online college visits, a surge in test optional admission colleges, and campus tours from the perspective of a camera. Lots of change, but manageable.

Then the news hit from Notre Dame’s law school that froze everyone in their tracks. The story is meticulously told by admissions experts Kyle McEntee and Sydney Montgomery, and is well worth the read, but here’s the summary:

A typical admissions acceptance says “Welcome. You’re in. Send us your deposit by May 1.”

Notre Dame’s law school acceptance said “Welcome. You’re in. Send us your deposit by April 15. Unless we get enough deposits sooner than that. Then, you’re out of luck.”

You didn’t read that incorrectly. The admissions office is telling you there’s a chance that, though you were admitted, there won’t be room for you if lots of admitted students deposit ahead of you.

This information came with its share of caveats—after all, this is law school—but the worst case scenario came true on April 6, when, through a series of e-mails over six hours, Notre Dame said spots were going, going, gone.

McEntee and Montgomery are kind enough to point out this was a banner year for law school applications, and that Notre Dame actually told everyone what they were doing. But their main point is clear. This practice was a huge disservice to those who can’t come up with a college deposit (of $600) on short notice, students who work and can’t access email in the middle of April 6, or scholarship students who are waiting to hear offers from other schools before depositing anywhere—and none of these groups are overrepresented in law school.

Even though this happened in law school, school counselors working with undergraduate admissions applicants were thrown, asking the very fair question, “If that can happen at law school, what keeps it from happening at the undergraduate level?”

In the long run, the answer to that question is, nothing. Many undergraduate programs are hurting for applicants this year, so they wouldn’t dream of creating a deposit scheme that has The Hunger Games written all over it. But some undergrad programs had record high applications this year, most of them schools that are well endowed, many not known for being overly accessible to low-income students and first generation students as it is. This approach to deposit roulette has the potential of making that bad situation worse—yet, there are doubtless college administrators out there looking at this approach to enrollment management, and thinking, “Hmmm…”

This is one more reason to wonder if the Department of Justice really did students any favors when they stuck their nose under the college admissions tent. Just two years ago, DOJ said many admissions practices required of members of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) violated either the letter or spirit of antitrust law. These rulings did serious damage to the May 1 deadline most colleges had for depositing to one, and only one, college.

The feeling at the time of the DOJ rulings was a fear that recruiting and student poaching would last well into the summer. But very few observers could have predicted a deposit strategy that had a deadline before May 1, or an approach that makes Lord of the Flies look like ballroom dancing.

It’s hard to see how that’s helping students, if it makes it to the undergrad level, or how it’s helping law students now. Stay tuned.

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