The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

Free classes! Free parking! Prime dorm rooms! More cash!

The more they worry about whether students in this year of the coronavirus will show up in the fall, the more admissions officers responsible for filling seats at colleges and universities have started sounding like the salesmen on late-night TV infomercials.

“The gloves have come off,” said Angel Pérez, vice president for enrollment and student success at Trinity College in Connecticut, who laments this trend. “You’re talking about a scenario where colleges need to enroll students at any cost.”

“The gloves have come off. You’re talking about a scenario where colleges need to enroll students at any cost.”

Angel Pérez, vice president for enrollment and student success, Trinity College

But wait! There’s more!

Put down a deposit and, at some schools, your tuition will never go up. Like to sleep in? Other colleges will give you early registration privileges so you don’t get stuck with morning classes. Still others are waiving fees and throwing in free food, free football tickets, even free books autographed by celebrity faculty in residence.

college admission
Students on the campus of Franklin & Marshall College before the coronavirus pandemic shut down universities nationwide. Franklin & Marshall has reopened its application window, an example of how worried institutions are about filling their classes in the fall. Credit: Photo: Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images

All of this, of course, is driven by the existential threat that too few students will sign on for college this fall because of the pandemic, which is wrecking family finances and raising fears that campuses will not reopen anyway, forcing classes to continue to be taught online.

In a twist of timing, some of the inducements being offered also are a consequence of a Justice Department action that forced university and college admissions officers to drop key parts of their professional code of ethics, which prohibited many of these kinds of appeals and banned colleges from going after each other’s students, on the grounds that such restraints discouraged competition.

Related: Already stretched universities now face tens of billions in endowment losses

“It’s incredibly ironic that this is really the first class that’s been affected by that change,” said Gregory Eichhorn, vice president for enrollment and student success at the University of New Haven, who called what’s happening this spring a “free for all.”

Joan Koven, an educational consultant outside Philadelphia who helps high school seniors get into college, was at the meeting of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, or NACAC, in September, when the ethics code was changed in response to Justice Department pressure.

“Everybody was sort of, like, ‘Oh my god, what just happened? Fasten your seatbelt because it’s going to be an all-out crazy time with people dangling incentives,’ ” Koven said. “And then we have this [pandemic crisis] bursting open.”

Eliminating the restrictions that had previously constrained recruiting may, in fact, be encouraging competition that could benefit consumers. That’s because the ethics rules blocked colleges from offering inducements to anyone who had committed to another institution, or from trying to get students already enrolled at one to transfer.

“It’s going to be a bidding war kind of scenario.”

George Wolf, vice president for enrollment management, Siena Heights University

But while such things as more financial aid and bigger discounts might be good for applicants who know how to get them or have parents or college counselors who do, they’re likely to elude the ones who need them most: low-income, first-generation students. If they even had access to college counselors in their high schools, they’re now shut down at home and don’t anymore.

“The Justice Department’s idea was for some people to be able to achieve a lower net cost,” said Madeleine Rhyneer, vice president at the enrollment consulting firm EAB. But “those who are best able to understand this opportunity are the ones who don’t need a lower net cost, as opposed to people of lower socioeconomic status, who really do.” 

Because colleges are now no longer banned from going after students who commit to other schools by May 1, the traditional deadline day (moved by some colleges this year to June 1), the changes also guarantee that the already stressful and confusing admissions period will stretch well into the summer, with recruiters trying to steal students from each other.

Related: Canceled research, sports, recitals — college students are coping with more than closed campuses

Some institutions, Including Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania, have even reopened their application windows.

“It’s going to be a bidding war kind of scenario,” said George Wolf, vice president for enrollment management at Siena Heights University in Michigan.

Thanks to years of declining enrollment that had already made it hard for colleges to fill their classes, there were signs of this as early as when the admission season opened.

High school seniors who agreed to be admitted early if accepted — which helps institutions lock in part of their enrollment — found themselves being offered litanies of sweeteners that were previously discouraged by the NACAC code of ethics.

As colleges and universities worry about enrollment in the fall, Franklin & Marshall College has taken the dramatic step of reopening its application window.

Those who were accepted and paid a deposit by Dec. 1 under the “Preferred Admission” process at Colorado Christian University, for instance, were guaranteed an additional $1,000-a-year scholarship.

Applicants who took the binding early decision route at High Point University in North Carolina were offered premium rooms (“Worried about having a hall bathroom? Select the perfect dorm in your new home!”), early move-in (“Skip the long lines”), early registration (“Don’t want 7:50 a.m. classes?”) and preferred parking (“Worried about where you’ll park your car, or if you’ll even be able to find an available space? Relax!”).

“Even before coronavirus, we were seeing very aggressive tactics,” Rhyneer said.

Related: Choosing pass/fail grades may help college students now, but could cost them later

Then came the pandemic, which forced campuses to shut down, threw millions of Americans out of work and prompted students to reassess their college choices.

Of the many problems university and college presidents say they’re facing now, enrollment is at the top of the list, according to a survey by ABC Insights, the rpk GROUP and the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

About a quarter of high school seniors who have already picked a college are reconsidering where to enroll; 20 percent say it’s likely or highly likely they won’t go at all.

About a quarter of high school seniors who have already picked a college are reconsidering where to enroll, a survey by the higher education research firm SimpsonScarborough reports; 20 percent say it’s likely or highly likely they won’t go at all.

As a result, said Koven, “What I’m seeing now is a lot more, ‘Let’s make a deal.’ ”

The singular goal is to get students to put down their deposits for the fall — and stay put after that.

“We’re seeing some great ideas out there and some desperate ideas” to achieve this, Eichhorn said.

His institution is entering admitted students in a sort of lottery once they pay their deposits; the winner gets to pick his or her own dorm room, rather than being assigned to one.

Admitted applicants at Albion College, too, are being entered in a sweepstakes once they put down their deposits. Prizes include free room and board for a semester, a $250 credit toward textbooks and free parking for a year.

The college also just announced it’s giving free tuition to and waiving fees for students from families in its home state of Michigan with incomes under $65,000; families that make more than that will get up to $136,000 worth of financial aid.

The idea is to at least fill dorms and sell meal plans, which are big revenue producers.

“If you don’t have people in your dorms, eating your food, you’re losing money,” said Robert Ruiz, a former admissions director and now vice president for strategic enrollment at the consulting firm LiaisonEDU.

Related: Online higher education isn’t winning over students forced off campus by the coronavirus

But the scale of these kinds of deals worries admissions officers at other colleges and universities.

“Some of the things that I’m hearing are almost crazy,” said Wolf, at Siena Heights. “I’m wondering how they’re going to survive by giving these things away.”

Even before this year, institutions were collectively handing back more than half of the tuition they collected from their full-time freshmen in the form of discounts or financial aid, according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers.

This spring, “I am seeing higher discounting than I’ve ever seen before, and by institutions that I’m really surprised are discounting that much,” said Trinity’s Pérez. “That is not a recipe for long-term success.”

The next battle will be among recruiters going after even students who have already committed elsewhere, and trying to persuade those now enrolled at other schools to transfer. These moves, too, were banned before, but are now allowed.

“Summer’s going to be especially brutal, because schools are going to be desperate,” Eichhorn said.

Many colleges are already reaching out to students who had applied in earlier years but went somewhere else, asking them if they would like to transfer and offering more generous financial aid and no loss of credits.

“Because of the changes that were made by NACAC, we can go to students who are two years into Michigan State University or Eastern Michigan University and recruit them. That would have been viewed as an unethical practice,” said Wolf.

Buchtel Memorial Tower on the University of Denver campus. Todd Rinehart, the university’s vice chancellor for enrollment and president-elect of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, worries that incentives being offered by some colleges to prop up their enrollments will largely benefit higher-income students. “If practices like these accelerate, who are we leaving behind?” Credit: Photo: Getty Images

He said he doesn’t necessarily approve of this either, but “now that it’s reality, we’re going to have to adapt to that and frankly my job is to make sure we’re as good or better [at it] as everybody else.”

Rivals will be coming after his school, too, Wolf said. To block this, his college and others are trying to more quickly cement relationships with students, offering them free for-credit online summer courses.

“These are obviously designed to help build a student’s affiliation so they become less poachable,” Rhyneer said.

Related: How the last recession affected higher education. Will history repeat?

The students most likely to know about and take advantage of these offers are the most well off, with savvy college counselors and parents who have higher educations.

“Those individuals who have access and who have understanding of the infrastructure can work that system,” said Ruiz. “This pandemic has laid bare the economic inequities within higher education, and they’re going to be exacerbated.”

Todd Rinehart, vice chancellor for enrollment at the University of Denver and president-elect of NACAC, worries about this too, he said. “If practices like these accelerate, who are we leaving behind?”

He said: “Low-income and first-generation families don’t know they should be reaching out to colleges and asking for more money.”

One new tool just unveiled is meant to help less well-connected students navigate this process; called SwiftStudent and produced by several nonprofits and foundations, it automatically generates an appeal to a college on a student’s behalf requesting more financial aid.

It’s too soon to know how effective the incentives being offered this year to college applicants will be.

Since announcing its sweepstakes, Albion has seen its number of early deposits rise at least 65 percent over last year, said Hernan Bucheli, vice president for enrollment management.

“There’s a risk for colleges that at some point you lose trust and credibility — that these places look desperate. Some of that could very easily backfire.”

Jim Jump, director of college counseling at St. Christopher’s School

But Jim Jump, director of college counseling at St. Christopher’s School, a private boys’ school in Virginia, said many high school seniors are unlikely to be swayed by such things.

“The underlying assumption is that choosing a college is entirely an economic decision, and I don’t think most students approach it purely as, ‘What is the best price?’ ” Jump said. “They’re looking for an experience. They’re looking for a fit of some kind.”

Besides, he said, the more extras recruiters throw at them, the more students and their families may become suspicious of the value of the underlying education.

“There’s a risk for colleges that at some point you lose trust and credibility — that these places look desperate,” Jump said. “Some of that could very easily backfire.”

Meanwhile, many of the incentives being offered to students — nice views, free parking, meal plans — assume that campuses will reopen on schedule, said Ruiz, “and that’s very much up in the air. And if they’re not going to be on the campus this fall, all the things we thought were important to them won’t be important.”

Either way, students and their families are in for a summer of salesmanship from colleges frantic to fill seats.

Said Wolf: “It’s going to be survival of the fittest.”

This story about college admission was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

Letters to the Editor

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information. We will not consider letters that do not contain a full name and valid email address. You may submit news tips or ideas here without a full name, but not letters.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email address. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *