Princeton Ends Early Decision

A week after Harvard, another university shifts. Some want trend to grow while others question whether most colleges could or should follow.
September 19, 2006

Princeton University on Monday announced that it was ending its early admissions program. The move -- a week after a similar move by Harvard University -- renewed the question of whether more institutions were likely to follow. Some experts saw a distinct possibility, while others cautioned that Princeton and Harvard operate in worlds so distinct from most other institutions that a groundswell was unlikely.

Shirley M. Tilghman, Princeton's president, noted the argument made by critics of early admissions that the system favors wealthier applicants, who are savvy about anything that will give them an edge and who don't need to worry about comparing the aid packages institutions offer. "We agree that early admission 'advantages the advantaged,' " Tilghman said. "Although we have worked hard in recent years to increase the diversity of our early decision applicants, we have concluded that adopting a single admission process is necessary to ensure equity for all applicants. We believe that elimination of early admission programs can reduce some of the frenzy, complexity and inequity in a process that even under the best of circumstances is inevitably stressful for students and their families."

Tilghman said she hoped other colleges would follow. Princeton's announcement said that the university had been studying the issue for several years. But a spokeswoman for the university said that the Harvard shift did play a role. Princeton officials had determined that it would be "hard to act unilaterally" on early decisions, and so were encouraged by Harvard's decision, she said.

Many competitive institutions have had early decision programs -- some of which bind admitted applicants to enroll -- for decades. (Princeton's current program is binding, but Harvard's is not.) In theory, the programs allowed some students who were set on a first choice to find out early and to allow colleges to start shaping their classes. In the last 10 years, however, more and more students have applied early -- and colleges have admitted larger and larger shares of their classes that way, adding to the frenzy and the worries about equity. At Princeton, almost 49 percent of this year's freshman class was admitted early.

Some educators said that they were thrilled by Princeton's announcement. Lloyd Thacker, founder of the Education Conservancy, a group pushing for reform of the admissions system, said he now expects other institutions to follow. "I would be surprised if there were no other similar announcements. These schools have too much in common in terms of mission and expectations of the boards. What is leadership for one is likely to be seen as leadership for another."

Thacker acknowledged that the motives for colleges to keep early admission programs are far greater at less competitive institutions, which can't count on most accepted students enrolling. But he also said that many institutions pay attention to Harvard and Princeton. "We need to lend prestige to a new way of doing things," he said.

At the same time, Thacker said it was important for admissions reformers to push on a variety of fronts -- so colleges not ready to do away with early decision could still make real changes. He said that institutions might re-evaluate their use of standardized tests, shift merit aid to need-based aid, or stop cooperating with those who produce rankings.

"Not everyone is going to step in the same footprint, but we can still find a similar path," he said.

Several college officials -- among them people who support the idea that the admissions process needs serious reform -- questioned whether most institutions could or should follow Princeton and Harvard's path.

"Harvard moves and Princeton follows. Princeton moves and Harvard follows. These institutions, as is pretty clear, can make these decisions with relatively no risk," said Robert J. Massa, vice president for enrollment and college relations at Dickinson College. Massa said that he thought a few more of the most competitive colleges might adopt similar policies, but that most would not. Most, he said, aren't in the position of a Harvard or Princeton in knowing that most students they admit will enroll.

Massa said that he sees the early admissions frenzy as "a symptom of the problem," not the root cause, so people who expect the frenzy to go away may be disappointed. "This is in no way going to restore sanity to the process," he said.

Dickinson has both early action (in which students make no commitment to enroll if accepted) and early decision (in which they do). Massa said that the argument that early admissions hurts low-income students is particularly weak with regard to early action. With binding programs, the view of many experts is that low-income families can't commit to a college without knowing their aid package. "But with early action, there's no request that you commit early," Massa said.

He noted that many colleges have a range of application deadlines, and that many public universities have rolling admissions. Why should people accept the premise put forth by Harvard and Princeton that a single deadline is necessarily the best way to recruit all kinds of students?

Yale University, which is currently studying whether to keep its early action program, is making a similar argument. A statement from Richard C. Levin, the president, noted that the university switched from a binding to a non-binding program in 2002. It is "not clear" that abandoning a non-binding program would attract more low-income students, Levin said.

Colin S. Diver, president of Reed College, which has a binding early decision program, said he wasn't convinced that such programs did the damage seen by their critics. Reed studies the economic backgrounds of those admitted early and through the regular program and they are quite similar, he said.

He also noted that Reed's early decision program accounts only for about a third of each class of new students, and that colleges can -- as Reed does -- not let early decision get to the levels it has reached at Princeton and elsewhere. Likewise, he said that because Reed does not award merit aid, and doesn't negotiate on aid packages, an applicant early knows that he or she will get the best aid package the college could offer -- regardless of when they are applying.

Diver acknowledged that early decision is a useful tool from the college's perspective, in planning for a class. But he also said it could be very helpful to applicants. He noted that Reed -- an Oregon liberal arts college with a reputation for attracting deeply intellectual students -- has a clear identity. "We're a distinctive school and we market ourselves that way," he said. For high school seniors who have figured out that they want a place like Reed, early admission can "decrease the stress and frenzy" everyone says they are trying to decrease by eliminating early admissions.

For those wanting to reform admissions, he said that they would be better off taking on the rankings industry. Reed is one of the few colleges that refuses to cooperate with U.S. News and World Report's rankings operation. "That's what's really pernicious in this," Diver said.

One expert on early admissions, however, said that it wasn't surprising that officials like Massa and Diver were skeptical of the idea of abandoning early decision. Liberal arts colleges rely on early decision much more than larger universities because small miscalculations about class size can have much more serious consequences than at larger institutions, said Christopher Avery, a professor of public policy at Harvard University and co-author of The Early Admissions Game: Joining the Elite.

Avery said it was too soon to tell whether other institutions would follow Harvard and Princeton. But he said there might be competitive reasons for them to do so. "If you want to be considered a school like Harvard and Princeton," he said, joining with them on this issue would send such a message. And while Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford are seen as some sort of super-elite, he said "there's not such a gulf between four and five, even if you agree on who four and five are."

The reality, he said, is that many college leaders have said previously that they would like to do away with early admissions, but feared doing so alone. Harvard and Princeton's actions have said that they would not be alone.

"Anything can happen now," Avery said, including the possibility that others do not follow. "But I think this is a situation where there could be a bandwagon. And to get a bandwagon, you need to get to one, and we did. And then you need to get to two, and we did, and then you need three."


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