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Gifts and Perks: A Problem or Not?
Carolyn Stone, Ed.D.
Wednesday September 01, 2004
by: Carolyn Stone, Ed.D.

Section: Inside Insight

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Dear School Counselor: Please join us for an all-expenses paid weekend to visit the Central University of the South. Accommodations will be in a well-known local inn. Recreational activities will include golfing at a country club and a trip to the racetrack, where you will have dinner in the clubhouse and receive a $50 stipend to gamble on the horses. The purpose of the trip is to familiarize you with our university. It is not our intent to unduly influence your college advising role or to seek an unfair advantage for our university. Our intention in having you visit is to have you learn about our university so you will be able to speak with first-hand knowledge about the fine programs we have to offer your students and make sure you have a good time in the process.

Sincerely, Your College Admissions Representative

On Thursday, July 8, 2004, The New York Times ran the article "Wooing of Guidance Counselors Is Raising Profiles and Eyebrows." The title itself gave indication that this article was not going to be a positive spotlight on the profession. The article described expensive perks school counselors received, such as ski trips to Vail, Colo.; hockey tickets; nights at luxury hotels; spa treatments; and other presents with monetary value in return for favorable or preferential treatment in steering students towards their universities. In the words of Victor L. Davolt, a college admissions representative for a small college in Denver who has been playing host to high school counselors, "It makes a huge difference as to how they’re going to convey our university." The article suggested lavish gifts to school counselors were the norm. Most school counselors who responded to the discussion about this article on ASCA’s listserv talked about receiving an occasional dinner; bus tours; gifts such as mugs, mouse pads and T-shirts with college logos; and long, detailed presentations about the college’s offerings.

Listserv subscribers debated whether or not the article was intended to make school counselors look as if they are committing an ethical violation or if the intent was to slam the practices of college admissions personnel. The New York Times is one of the most respected newspapers in the world; therefore, when it prints that we are willing partners in accepting perks designed to influence our college-advising role, our ethics are being called into question. Regardless of whether The New York Times placed the focus on admissions representatives or school counselors, the situations described require a cooperative agreement. Thus, The New York Times describes school counselors as a party to unethical practices. In the words of Doug Morrissey, New York State School Counselor Association president, "Implicit in the article is that if we are taking advantage of the perks, our ethics and judgment are somehow called into question."

The listserv discussion reflected considerable concern that The New York Times didn’t present a balanced view, was only discussing private school counselors without making that distinction, made no attempt to contact NYSSCA or ASCA leadership and questioned our ethics without printing the public school counselor’s point of view. Responsible journalism is certainly at issue, but it’s one over which we have minimum control. However, the larger question for ASCA membership to ponder and debate is whether or not school counselors are behaving unethically if they are willing recipients of these perks. Is it OK to accept a mug but unethical to accept a ski trip? Is the dilemma situational, or are we merely the recipients of high-powered business and marketing techniques?

Although we normally deal with court cases and federal and state legislation in this column, this article is a departure from that format. It’s simply an opinion piece, seeking your opinion and offering one as to whether or not ethical violations have occurred.

Is it unethical to receive perks with more than a token monetary value if you know the gifts are being offered to influence you? If you are secure in the fact that you will not be influenced by the gifts, can you accept them without concern that you are breaching your professional ethics? For elementary and middle school counselors, consider a parallel situation. Can you accept gifts from parents who you know want to influence you to help get their children placed with certain teachers?

Let’s consider the rules and regulations about the limits in campaign contributions. "We question a politician who receives gifts and then votes for a law favorable to the gift giver," Morrissey said. If an elected official receives money in exchange for awarding certain companies lucrative contracts to build the roads, then we place them behind bars for racketeering. Are there any parallels applicable for our profession and those addressing campaign contributions?

Isn’t it true that the overwhelming majority of school counselors take these trips, learn about the schools’ offerings, place the information in their memory banks and use the information in appropriate and fair ways? I believe the answer to that question is a resounding, yes. School counselors, with few exceptions, would never be unduly influenced no matter how lavish the gifts. School counselors are going to do what is best for students; the only advantage the college can expect is that as a result of the time spent with college representatives, the school counselor will now know more about the school; whereas, before the interaction, the college may have only been a name in the "Guide to College Admissions." Is there a concern with perception? Since it is in school counselors’ nature to provide students with trustworthy, objective advice, do we have to worry about the perception of others who may question the influence gifts will have? The New York Times marred our image when it said, "First and foremost . . . guidance counselors are supposed to do just what their title implies: provide students with trustworthy, objective advice. By that logic, accepting gifts from the very universities they are paid to assess poses a conflict of interest that undermines the covenant between counselors and students." The issue for school counselors and gift taking from post-secondary institutions is really one of avoiding undue influence, ensuring they are representing all colleges in a fair way to students; avoiding promoting one college over another except when it is to a student’s benefit and being tuned into and aware of the messages our behavior may be sending to others.

As Edward deBono said, "Perception is real even when it is not reality."

What is your opinion? You can read The New York Times article in its entirety atwww.uh.edu/ednews/2004/nytimes/200407/20040708guidancecoun.html. E-mail your opinion about the following questions to me at cstone@unf.edu. If I receive a critical mass I will summarize the results in a future article.

Do you believe there are ethical issues to be considered with regard to receiving perks from colleges?

Should there be a monetary limit to a gift that is appropriate and ethical? If so, what dollar amount would you consider for the limit?

Can school counselors be assured they won’t be subconsciously or inadvertently influenced by a college that showers them with attention and gifts?