NACAC's Changes to the College Admissions Process

by Rachel Bishop | April 23, 2020
NACAC's Changes to the College Admissions Process

Part two of a three-part series on how admissions pros can adapt to recent changes in the space to recruit students.

The Impact of NACAC's Changes to the College Admissions Process

In our last blog, we talked about how COVID-19 has drastically changed postsecondary admissions. Yet, even before the crisis, colleges were scrambling to adjust to other changes in the admissions space. In the fall of 2019, in response to pressure from the U.S. Department of Justice, the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) changed its mandatory Code of Ethics. Three rule changes especially have made an already competitive situation much more so.

Colleges can now engage in tactics that were previously off-limits, including

  1. recruiting students who have already made a deposit and committed to attend another institution;
  2. offering incentives to early admissions applicants; and
  3. recruiting transfer students away from other institutions regardless of who makes the first contact. (In the past, students had to make the first move and inquire about transferring before the accepting institution could communicate with them.)

How do the NACAC changes impact the admissions process?

Most institutions publicly stated they will continue to follow the previous version of the Code. However, cracks in the proclaimed unity among some colleges are starting to appear. For example, in a recent EAB survey of enrollment managers: [1]

  • 23% stated they are considering recruiting students who have already committed to attend another institution;
  • 35% stated they were considering reaching out to potential transfer students who had been admitted but decided to attend a different institution; and
  • 11% stated they would consider recruiting transfer students whether or not they had already applied to or shown interest in the receiving institution.

The problem is that even if just a few institutions start to engage in these practices, it may become much harder for those who try to adhere to the previous NACAC guidelines to meet their enrollment goals. What will this mean for colleges and universities?

1. The pressure is growing to get students to commit as soon as possible.

On the one hand, increased competition will speed up the student commitment timeline. Colleges now face pressure to incentivize students to pay a tuition deposit as soon as possible. For example, some institutions are already starting to utilize promotions such as time-sensitive offers of additional aid to students who make a tuition deposit by a given deadline.[2][3]

Also, more colleges are now starting to have early decision programs. Further, institutions that already have them will grow these programs. We are starting to see, for example, institutions offer perks to early decision students. Some of these perks include special tuition discounts, guaranteed four-year tuition rates, first choice in selecting courses and dorm rooms, and access to earlier move-in days.[4]

2. The recruiting season is now much (much) longer.

While some aspects of the admissions cycle are being sped up to occur earlier, recruiting “season” may no longer be a season at all. NACAC's changes to the college admissions process mean that the May 1 deposit deadline is no longer set in stone. It no longer marks the end of the recruiting process. There are now two new sizable target markets, both of which extend recruiting into the summer: 1) already committed students and 2) transfer students. Colleges are starting to reach out to students who have already committed to attend a different institution to try to and sway them away with offers of more scholarship dollars or better aid packages, dragging the competition for applicants much later into the year.

In fact, the most competitive target audience might not be incoming freshmen, but high-performing transfer students. The transfer market can be quite lucrative. According to the National Student Clearinghouse, 38.5% of students who begin at a four-year institution transfer during the course of their postsecondary study. Students who start at a two-year program transfer to another two-year program at about the same rate (37%).[5]

In fact, EAB conducted a recent survey of 2,000 freshmen and found that less than half of all students would “definitely” select the same college if they were to go through the admissions process again. Often, students cite a reduction in overall cost as the number one transfer incentive. Around 34% of respondents said they might consider transferring in order to lower the cost of attendance. The second most cited incentive pertained to time to degree. Around 28% of students stated they might consider transferring if all of their credits would be accepted by the receiving institution.[6]

3. College and universities have to protect committed and enrolled students from being recruited away.

Changes to the college admissions process mean that we may be facing much higher rates of summer melt than ever before. Now, colleges must not only convert admitted to deposited students but also keep them committed until the start of courses. This means that institutions will have to stay in close communication with and build affinity among students long after they have accepted admission.

The goal is to focus on ways institutions can quickly become a part of each student’s self-concept (that is, whether a student would describe themselves by saying, “I am a ‘U of X’ student”). Once students feel that they are part of the campus and that sense of belonging begins to define who they are as a person, it becomes harder to consider switching.

Keeping students committed

One strategy to keep students committed is to begin onboarding committed students much earlier in the year. Institutions are testing new ways like connecting students with academic advisors and issuing them student IDs as soon as they are admitted. Events such as course selections, dorm assignments, admit days, and orientations will need to occur much earlier in the year. Further, staff may need to offer them on a continuing, rolling basis. Some colleges are even encouraging newly admitted students to begin their studies immediately by enrolling in online summer courses.

Retention was already a growing issue for colleges facing tight budgets. Now that students can be recruited away, it is much more so. And, in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, students who are no longer on campus are more at risk of succumbing to the old adage “out of sight, out mind.” While not on campus surrounded by social networks, students are more likely to lose emotional ties to their college. They may be more open to being lured away by competitors who are less expensive, closer to home, more convenient, or who better align with students’ changing needs and interests. At greatest risk of dropping out altogether are low-income, working adults, and first-gen students who may lack access to work-study income or the technology required to learn online during campus closures.

Learn more

Once students commit to attending an institution, it will be important to keep in constant contact with them in order to grow and cement feelings of affiliation. In our next blog, we will explore ways postsecondary institutions can better communicate with and support students through the use of text messaging and artificial intelligence technology.

For tips on how to keep students attached to their institution and satisfied with their college experience, see our blog Turning Students into Alumni Ambassadors.NACAC's Changes to the College Admissions Process

For techniques and researched-based practices that increase student retention and completion rates, download our Student Retention Guidebook.

* Special thanks to our guest author, Alice Anne Bailey, PhD, a Higher Education Consultant.


[1] Rhyneer, M. (2019, November 21). Implications of the NACAC CEPP guideline changes: Highlights from a nationwide survey of enrollment leaders. EAB.

[2] Hoover, E. (2020, February 11). ‘Act Now!’ Say hello to the new enrollment playbook: How retail tactics are reshaping student recruitment. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

[3] Hoover, E. (2019, September 29). ‘Welcome to the Wild West’: The Competition for College Applicants Just Intensified. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

[4] Hoover, E. (2020)

[5] National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. (2018, August 7). Transfer & Mobility. National Student Clearinghouse.

[6] Luczak, M. (2020, February 24). Admissions code of ethics now allows ‘student poaching.’ University Business.

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