Defending Early Decision Policies

A columnist for The New York Times has again voiced his displeasure with Early Decision policies.

There he goes again. In a tirade in The New York Times entitled “Merit Aid (or Lack Thereof) Makes Early Decision Ever Murkier,” Ron Lieber writes “Early decision isn’t binding, and Northeastern should say so on its website, using those same italics that are already there. (It is indeed as plain as day on one of the actual early decision agreements the school eventually asks students, high school counselors and parents to sign.)” As our readers may recall, Mr. Lieber wrote a similar editorial attacking the binding nature of Early Decision policies. And while Mr. Lieber does indeed raise some valid points about, say, the flaws of Net Price Calculators, which colleges are required to maintain on their websites as a matter of law (here’s Northeastern’s Net Price Calculator), his argument that Early Decision isn’t binding is oversimplified and will only serve to make the highly selective college admissions process more stressful for all.

And why? Because Early Decision is binding and to suggest it is not only sews confusion. Is there an exception to the binding nature of Early Decision policies? Yes, and students read this fine print before they submit their Early Decision application. In the rare instance a university, like Northeastern, is not able to meet the demonstrated financial need of an applicant, that student will not be required to attend. As Mr. Lieber writes himself, “This isn’t a contract that schools try to enforce through some kind of legal mechanism, and each year, 2 to 3 percent of the people who get into Northeastern via early decision decline the offer, mostly for financial reasons.” Read that again. 2-3%. These folks are the exception to the rule, not the rule.

Mr. Lieber is right that an Early Decision commitment is not legally binding. But we would challenge Mr. Lieber to identify a school that has ever made such an argument — that it is legally binding. If a 20-something commits via text to going on a date with another 20-something but ultimately backs out, it’s not right. Yet it’s not a violation of law. It was a commitment this 20-something made, a commitment they didn’t honor. In the case of elite college admissions, students are expected to honor their commitments — even if it’s not a matter of law. And just like in dating, if word gets out that you don’t honor your commitments, well, chaos can ensue.

Should the fine print that students can wiggle out of their Early Decision commitments if the college can’t meet their demonstrated financial need be in bigger, bold font on the websites of colleges? Sure. But, Mr. Lieber, let’s not make the argument that colleges have ever argued Early Decision is legally binding. And let’s not make the argument that an Early Decision commitment, essentially, isn’t worth the paper it’s written on if it’s not legally binding — because that couldn’t be further from the truth.

As Northeastern writes on its admissions website, “For students whose unequivocal first choice is Northeastern, we recommend you consider applying Early Decision. To recognize that Early Decision students make a commitment to us, we’re making a commitment to you by offering additional benefits to those considering applying Early Decision and to those who are ultimately admitted through the Early Decision program.” Like many selective and highly selective universities, Northeastern loves applicants who show their love to them by applying Early Decision — and that love is rewarded at a higher rate than for candidates who do not make such a commitment by applying Regular Decision.

 
 

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