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Is it ever appropriate for a student to renege on an early-decision commitment? And how should a college counselor respond when a family wants to game the system or play fast and loose with the rules?

Those were just a couple of the questions I found myself contemplating during my spring break while sitting on the deck sunning myself and enjoying the view of the Currituck Sound. For those of you wondering, “What’s wrong with you?” that’s an essay question rather than a short answer—and a topic for another time.

Like most college counselors I am on duty even during off hours. I chuckle to myself when my school talks about work-life balance, because I understand all too well that schools and colleges operate on an economic model that relies on hiring those of us who are workaholics and lack balance. I also wonder if the next generation of college admission officers and college counselors will be as committed/neurotic as most of us are.

In this instance, there was method to my madness. I had just gotten off a phone call with a college counseling friend who had asked for a consult and a second opinion on an ethical dilemma involving a student.

Like many students who had to navigate high school and college during COVID-19, the student in question had dealt with academic and mental health challenges, including changing schools halfway through high school and also being homeschooled at one point. As a result, their transcript did not match up to their college aspirations.

In middle school and early high school, the student had been a champion distance runner until burning out and giving up the sport, at which point they threw their energy into year-round competitive swimming. That included joining a high-end club program known for not only producing Division I swimmers, but Olympians and even Olympic champions.

Despite the serious commitment to swimming, the student ended up being one of the only team members without Division I interest. The student also went out on a limb and applied to a restrictive early-action university, only to be denied.

When the school returned from the winter holiday break, the counselor learned that during the break the student had reached out to the track coach at a high-academic institution to inquire about potentially running there. The coach had one spot left, and after the student was vetted by the coach and the admissions office, they applied early decision two—where the college offers a later early-decision deadline than the traditional October or November cutoff—and were admitted.

So far, so good. But as the deadline approached for depositing at the ED2 college, the student and family started getting cold feet. They submitted the deposit but almost immediately inquired about perhaps deferring admission for a year. My counselor friend worried that the motivation wasn’t as much an extra year to solidify readiness for college as buying time to look for other, more palatable options. What made that particularly worrisome was that the counselor’s school has a long-standing, healthy relationship with the university in question. All this led the counselor to ask for my thoughts.

In case studies like this one, “Ethical College Admissions” is always more interested in looking for larger themes and issues. So what are some of those issues?

The first has to do with the increase in colleges offering and students choosing early-decision-two options. I have seen a dramatic increase in the number of my students going the ED2 route, sometimes immediately upon being deferred or denied in ED or early action.

Is that a good thing? It’s probably good for colleges as part of an enrollment management plan, but what about for students? Rushing into an ED2 commitment feels a lot like jumping into a romantic relationship immediately after being dumped by one’s ex.

At the same time, I understand the motivation. The growth in early-admission options, whether early decision or early action, can make a student feel like the admissions process is a game of musical chairs where you don’t want to be without a chair when the music stops during regular admission. I wonder, in fact, if “regular admission” may be an endangered species.

With many institutions admitting more than half the freshman class through early decision, ED is coercive. I used to advise students that they shouldn’t apply early decision unless they had done thorough research and had a clear first choice, but the train bearing that advice has left the station, along with the larger idea that a college choice should be thoughtful. Today the subtle (and maybe not so subtle) message is similar to that in the old Ronco commercials for must-have products like the pocket fisherman and ginsu knives (technically not a Ronco product). Only instead of “if you order now,” with regard to early decision, the message is “if you don’t order now.”

I am also seeing more colleges with both early action and early decision encouraging students deferred in EA to switch their applications to ED2. That is certainly a way of measuring demonstrated interest, and I’m OK with that as long as colleges are transparent about their practices, but it also encourages students to look at the decision to apply ED as about strategy rather than commitment. What I have grave concerns about is a situation I recently heard about where a university encouraged a student deferred during early decision to switch their application to ED2, whereupon the student was denied outright. That’s indefensible.

I think this case also raises questions about the nature of the early-decision commitment and the inequality in the relationship between college and applicant. There is an old joke that when it comes to a bacon-and-egg breakfast, the chicken is interested but the pig is committed. When it comes to early decision, the college is the chicken and the student is the pig. The student is expected to commit fully at the time of application, but the college bears no obligation other than agreeing to provide a decision at an earlier date.

I would never encourage a student to enter into an early-decision application without understanding that it is a binding commitment, but I also wonder how defensible that position is. Parents who are lawyers will often ask what is keeping them from breaking the early-decision commitment, and there is certainly nothing legally binding. The statistics I’ve seen indicate that the early-decision yield rate nationally is more like 89 percent than 100 percent.

In this case I also wonder if the college believed that student had committed by applying through ED2. Its behavior would suggest not. The college required an enrollment deposit from the student, and yet if the student is considered to have committed at the moment of application, a deposit is unnecessary.

The final set of issues have to do with when, if ever, it is appropriate to withdraw from an early-decision agreement. In this particular case, the family submitted the deposit, then had second thoughts about whether a year would better meet the student’s needs. The ethical issues would have been lessened had that come up prior to depositing.

The family asked the counselor about the possibility of deferring admission for a year in order for the student to do a PG year at a boarding school, but it was not clear if they really wanted to defer admission at the ED2 school or buy time to shop for a “better” option a year from now. I think that makes a difference. Given the student’s background, including both academic and health concerns, buying time with an extra year may very well be in the student’s best interest academically and personally. I also think that backing out of ED to attend boarding school is not the same thing as backing out to attend another college. But deferring admission should be used only if the student intends to matriculate a year from now.

So what is the counselor to do? Families may not know, or care, that their decisions impact not only them but future applicants. In this case the counselor has to worry about potential damage to the relationship between the school and the university. I would probably urge the family to contact the college and be honest about their hesitancy to continue the commitment, and I hope the college would allow that. There is no benefit in having a student on your campus who doesn’t want to be there. I also urged my counselor friend to find an opportunity after the fact to communicate with the admissions office that the school was not complicit, or even aware, of the family’s decision-making process.

The college process tests what we believe—about college, about parenting and maybe about life. There is a tremendous temptation to look for ways to game the system, and the college admissions process doesn’t necessarily discourage that. In my opinion we are always better off choosing principle over pragmatism.

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