Karen W. Arenson
December 23, 2002
As debate over the merits of early decision college admissions continued, early applications rose sharply at many universities this year. In some cases, colleges have already admitted 30 to 40 percent of their freshman classes for next fall through the early decision process.
At Harvard and Yale early applications increased almost 25 percent, while at other universities, including Columbia, Princeton, New York University and the University of Pennsylvania, early applications rose more than 10 percent.
“The only thing we’re sure of is that this illustrates once again how eager people are to have some kind of early admission process,” said Marlyn McGrath Lewis, director of admissions at Harvard.
Not all colleges had increases. Among those that did not were Williams, down 2 percent; Brown, down 3 percent; Duke and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, each down 10 percent; and Swarthmore, down 15 percent. Officials at some of these campuses said they were not certain why the numbers had declined. They said the numbers tended to jump around year to year, but were still far higher than they were five years ago.
A student who applies under an early decision plan promises to attend that college if admitted in December. Most of the Ivy League universities and most other colleges that offer early admission programs use binding early decision plans. Under a variation known as early action, practiced by fewer colleges including Harvard, M.I.T., the University of Chicago and Georgetown a student is notified about admission by mid-December, but is free to apply to other colleges and need not decide where to enroll until May.
Advocates of early decision plans say they allow students who know where they want to go to eliminate four months of anxiety. But a growing number of critics say that binding early decision plans lead students who are not sure where they want to enroll to limit themselves to one college because they believe it enhances their chances of admission to a prestigious campus.
In the forthcoming book “The Early Admissions Game” (Harvard University Press), three Harvard researchers report that more than a third of the early decision students they interviewed applied early even though they were not certain of their first choice college.
Students have reason to adopt such a strategy. Penn, for example, has already filled 47 percent of its freshman class through the early decision process. Yale and Columbia have filled 43 percent of their freshman classes, while at Dartmouth and Stanford the figure is 37 percent.
This year several institutions including Yale, Stanford, Beloit College, the University of North Carolina and Mary Washington College announced that they would shift to early action admission from early decision to reduce the pressure on students. On Tuesday, Fordham University in New York, which takes only a small part of its class through early decisions, joined that lineup.
“Early decision has become a game of odds,” said Peter Stace, Fordham’s vice president for enrollment. “That’s not what it was supposed to be about.”
Scott White, a college counselor at Montclair High School in Montclair, N.J., said many of the students who were applying early “are doing so more as a strategy than a thoughtful consideration.”
Some guidance counselors, like Bev Taylor, an independent counselor in Roslyn Heights, N.Y., say they encourage students to apply early if they have decided where they most want to go. One reason, Ms. Taylor said, is that universities sometimes take weaker students who commit themselves through early decisions and reject stronger students who apply later, or put them on waiting lists.
“Since it is no secret that more and more colleges are filling a larger portion of the incoming classes with early decision or early action, the students are hip to it,” said Bob Turba, chairman of guidance services at Stanton College Preparatory School, a public magnet school in Jacksonville, Fla., where about 20 percent of the senior class applied early, a little higher than last year.
But Mr. Turba said many chose early action because “there aren’t too many who are so confident in their choices.”
Some institutions, like Penn, said they cut back slightly on the number of early applicants they admitted this year to leave more space for regular applicants. Penn admitted 1,122 of its 3,401 early applicants, or 47 percent of a class of 2,400 students; last year it accepted 1,181, or 49 percent of its freshman class.
“We took more last year because of the uncertainty from 9/11,” said Lee Stetson, Penn’s dean of admissions.
Rebecca Dixon, associate provost of university enrollment at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., which received 1,044 early applications about the same as last year said she accepted fewer early applicants this year; the freshman class admitted last year was larger than planned. The university is now being more selective, Ms. Dixon said.
“The early decision pool’s quality was about equal to last year’s,” she said.
Another criticism of early decision programs is that they are more likely to be used by students at private schools and elite public schools, who are more sophisticated about the college application process, have greater access to guidance counselors and are not trying to compare financial aid packages from a number of schools. The early application pools typically include relatively few students from disadvantaged households, and the numbers of minority students are also small.
But some colleges said they had seen greater diversity in their early application pools this year, with more minority students and more students from other countries.
The University of Chicago, a nonbinding early action college where early applications jumped 21 percent to 2,903 this year, said the number of early applications from international students rose to 139, from 72 last year, and the number of Hispanic, African-American and public school students rose.