How early is too early? College and high school officials at the annual meeting of the National Association for College Admission Counseling tried to answer that question Saturday. They voted to bar member colleges from admitting students to college prior to September 15 of the students' senior years in high school, and to bar institutions from setting application deadlines prior to October 15 of the senior year.
The association also voted -- at its annual meeting, in Pittsburgh -- to prohibit the use of standardized test scores as the sole criterion for awarding financial aid.
While the organization can't order colleges to change their practices, NACAC members work at the overwhelming majority of colleges, and include admissions deans at most institutions.
The policy changes by NACAC come amid growing concern -- within the profession and from students and their families -- that the frenzy over the admissions process is distracting students from meaningful senior years in high school. "We're trying to preserve the senior year," said Pete Caruso, the outgoing chair of NACAC's Admissions Practices Committee and associate director of undergraduate admissions at Boston College.
A survey by NACAC this year found that more than 100 colleges acknowledged offering admission to some students prior to September 1 of the students' senior year of high school. This apparently growing trend has upset many admissions officials, who believe it is not in students' interests to apply and be accepted so early. High school counselors say that they are unable to help students over the summer, when they need advice, and some fear that students are being pressured to commit to colleges too early, lured by promises of priority on course registration and housing.
Similar concerns prompted the idea of keeping application deadlines from creeping before October 15. Caruso said that a few colleges have been setting deadlines as early as May and June prior to the senior year and others have been pushed into September. Students need time to study their options and work with their counselors, Caruso said.
Some community colleges and open admissions institutions expressed concern at the NACAC meeting that their admissions philosophies might violate the new rules. A big part of the pitch of some community colleges to prospective students is to tell them, sometimes early in their high school careers, that if they graduate from high school they will be admitted to college.
Caruso said that the concerns of college officials about the super-early admissions offers being made by some institutions were not related to community colleges and open admissions institutions. He said that NACAC was committed to clarifying the language to reassure community colleges that this new rule is not directed against their policies -- many of which are longstanding and applauded by admissions experts.
The vote on barring the use of standardized tests as the sole criterion for awarding aid makes the association's aid rules consistent with admissions rules. NACAC has long opposed the use of test scores alone as automatic triggers to admit or reject students. Proponents of the expansion of the rule noted that the College Board, the creator and sponsor of the SAT, is on record opposing the use of the test as a sole criterion for making education decisions.
Robert Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, said that there are "large numbers" of colleges that use SAT scores (or scores on selected other tests) as a sole criterion in awarding aid, although he noted that in many cases these are rules that may apply to only a few scholarships offered.
Almost all colleges abandoned the use of admissions cutoff scores, he said, but the financial aid process is "the hidden underbelly" of how test scores are used inappropriately.