Ethical College Admissions: Who Benefits From Early Decision?

Jim Jump doesn’t favor abolishing all early programs, but he sees problems -- especially for students -- in the approaches used by many institutions.

October 30, 2017

Last week I met with a colleague who is going through the college admissions process for the first time as a parent. He has learned the hard way that one’s experience and accumulated wisdom as an educator are of little value in dealing with your own child’s college application process.

He is neither the first nor the last to have this experience. I have heard a respected admissions dean confess that his confidence in his expertise had disappeared when his own child applied to college. A number of years ago I served as a surrogate college counselor for the children of a college counseling friend, and she asked questions (“Which subject test looks better?”) that would have annoyed her coming from another parent.

My colleague is generally rational and grounded about college admissions, but he would also admit that he can be susceptible to the “suburban legends” parents of high school seniors hear on the sidelines of soccer games, at the grocery store and on the cocktail party circuit.

It was just such an encounter that led him to me for a reality check. He and his family had attended a college football game the previous weekend, and at a postgame get-together one of the other adults, after announcing that his daughter is applying to Cornell University, made the statement that any student who doesn’t apply early is sending a college a signal normally delivered with the middle digit on one’s hand.

He wanted my opinion of that pronouncement. His child had been considering an early-decision application but was now reassessing priorities and reopening options. Was that a mistake?

That conversation happened to be the second in less than an hour regarding early decision/early action.

I had just finished talking to a senior trying to decide to which of two universities he will apply early Nov. 1. At one time I would have responded that if he wasn’t sure where he wanted to apply, then he wasn’t ready to apply early at all.

How times have changed. As distasteful as my ideal college counseling self finds it, I would be negligent today if I didn’t advise my students, especially those who are unhooked, that they need to use an early “chip” if they aspire to attend a highly selective college or university.

Benjamin Franklin is attributed with the aphorism “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” But what does applying early make one?

I am not among those who believe that early decision and early action should be abolished. I think that early decision can be a important part of an enrollment management plan for institutions and that early decision simplifies the application process for students advanced enough in thinking about college to have a clear first choice. But I also recognize that early-decision/action programs advantage those who are already advantaged.

There are, however, a couple of issues associated with the use of early decision and early action that concern me at this time of year.

One is the number of colleges that admit a large percentage of their freshman class early, in some cases as high as 50 to 60 percent. Several years ago I heard a college president state his goal that his university would not admit any student who didn’t apply early, raising the question, why even have regular decision?

The National Association for College Admission Counseling Assembly has approved a motion asking institutions to consider whether limiting the number of spaces allocated early serves the best interest of students. An early draft of that proposal wanted to restrict the percentage to a third of the class.

I get that admitting a large portion of the class early helps push down an institution’s admit rate (but don’t buy into the view that a low admit rate is a measure of institutional quality). I also think there’s value in admitting a class with a high percentage of students who want to be there. The university founded by Franklin, the University of Pennsylvania, has certainly followed his advice by embracing early decision in the admissions process and has gotten healthy and wealthy, if not necessarily wise, as a result.

I wonder, however, how well admitting a large percentage of the class early serves students or our profession. Where there is a huge discrepancy in admit rates between early and regular, the subtle (or not so subtle) message may be apply early or have no chance of admission.

The question is whether that message is coercive to students in the same way as preferential housing or financial aid for early-decision applicants, both incentives prohibited by NACAC’s Code of Ethics and Professional Practices.

It is also the case that the advantages provided by early-admission programs confer corresponding disadvantages, a college admission version of the Principle of Double Effect. A student who chooses to apply early to one institution also severely hurts their chances of admission to other highly selective institutions.

This is true not only with early decision, but also with restrictive early action. I have argued before that the line of demarcation between early decision and early action should be not binding versus nonbinding, but rather restrictive versus nonrestrictive, and that the restrictive early-action programs used by a small number of institutions are really nonbinding early decision.

For students applying to the most selective colleges, the reality is the national candidates reply date is not May 1 but rather Nov. 1, capturing the spirit of Yogi Berra’s observation “It gets late awfully early around here.”

For those of us who are college counselors, we have to decide between ideals and pragmatism, whether to advise our students to follow their hearts or strategize. In so doing we may reinforce the existing perception that college admission is a game rather than a process of self-discovery and discernment.

I worry about the implications of the acceleration of the college process due to the pressure to apply early. It forces kids to make decisions about their futures before they may be developmentally ready, and I wonder if that is a way in which the college admissions process contributes to the acute anxiety and mental health issues faced by so many young people today.

I told my colleague to follow his instincts, to help his child figure out the right fit rather than feel pressured to commit somewhere early. An old English proverb says that the early bird gets the worm. But, then again, who wants worms?


Jim Jump is the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, Va. He has been at St. Christopher’s since 1990 and was previously an admissions officer, women’s basketball coach and philosophy professor at the college level. Jim is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.


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