Washington -- The struggle for transparency in college admissions and student financial aid got a welcome boost this week from a prominent college president, Morton O. Shapiro of Northwestern University. His analysis (with co-author Gary S. Morson) of the shortcomings of many college officials working in this secretive field, titled "Ethics 101 for Admissions Officers," can be read in the July, 2, 2017 edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education.
One pernicious practice Shapiro questions is the gauging of student interest in attending a particular college in order to raise its net price, thus putting financially needy students into greater debt because they naïvely took the college's bait to demonstrate their enrollment intentions. Of this and other such misuse of econometric data collected on students, Shapiro writes that it is "not exactly what the public is led to believe about how the admissions process works."
He adds, "If colleges were open about what they were doing, at least the deception would disappear."
The Shapiro offering comes at the same time Inside Higher Ed has put a spotlight on a recently passed Maryland law that prohibits displacement of outside scholarships at Maryland's public institutions. Opposition to the law was led by college financial aid officials who do not want the public to know how scholarship aid is manipulated to the disadvantage of outside scholarship providers and recipients. Not always, but often grant shell-gaming comes at the expense of the financially needy, who lose institutional grant aid and must take on higher student loan debt. Associations of college financial aid officials will be mounting campaigns to prevent other states from adopting such legislation, on the grounds that how they package financial aid is proprietary information that the public is not entitled to see. Many colleges pay good money for econometric data and algorithms that they would rather not be exposed to public view.
The Secretary of Education could put an end to a lot of this deception and unethical behavior by enforcing the Student Right to Know law (20 USC 1092; 34 CFR 668.42), which provides that students have a right to know how their financial aid is determined. It has been on the books for years without enforcement.
Some college officials defend scholarship displacment because it involves their "own" money, which they say they have a right to spend, or not spend, as they see fit. Setting aside the question of whose money it is (often it is tuition income from other students), as a federal and state taxpayer I certainly have an interest in how such money is spent, if it results in defeating or undermining the purpose of federal programs like Pell grants, which like outside scholarships can also be displaced. Sometimes federal regulations are necessary to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse, and this is one of them. There is no requirement for colleges to participate in federal programs, but if they do, they must expect to comply with basic rules of program and fiscal integrity.