Second Thoughts on Admissions Reform

Counselors voted last year to bar making offers before September 15 of senior year of high school; some universities now seek a new vote.
August 30, 2007

In college admissions, how early is too early? And is it realistic to think that admissions reforms that make sense in the Northeast will also work in the Midwest and Southeast? These are two questions coming to a head in a debate that has reopened among admissions counselors about admitting some applicants prior to the start of their senior year of high school.

Last year the National Association for College Admission Counseling voted to bar member colleges from admitting students to institutions prior to September 15 of the students’ senior years in high school, and from setting application deadlines prior to October 15 of the senior year. The move followed more than a year of study by the association and reports that more colleges were engaged in what some called "early early decision" in ways that critics feared put undue pressure on high school students too early in the process.

While NACAC can't order colleges to change practices, the association's policies are respected in the admissions world and most deans do not want to be seen as violating them.

In recent months, letters have been circulating among admissions officials asking the association to reconsider. One group of opponents of the policy comes from Big 12 universities and another from public universities in Michigan. The president of NACAC, Mary Lee Hoganson, recently sent a memo (first reported in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) to leaders of the association saying that there is enough opposition to the policy that it will probably come up for reconsideration at the association's meeting, next month in Austin. "This is a nation blessed with a wide variety of postsecondary options; however, this advantage also makes it extremely difficult to come up with 'one-size-fits-all' solutions," she wrote.

The chief critics of the policy could not be reached Wednesday. But they have said in the past that large public universities that enroll many students who may not be certain about going to college benefit from reaching out to students before senior year of high school and offering admission. Much of the concern about early decision admissions -- in which students must commit to attend a college if accepted -- involves colleges where admission is highly competitive. Many of the institutions opposing the policy operate in more populist educational traditions.

Pete Caruso, associate director of undergraduate admissions at Boston College, was chair of NACAC’s Admissions Practices Committee when it studied the issue. He said that the September 15 date was actually a compromise. Many colleges in New England would have preferred to see even more of the senior year of high school unfold before admissions offers are made, he said, while some in other parts of the country thought the date was too late. In part, Caruso said, it depends when high schools start and counselors have enough time to meet with seniors.

Caruso said that committee members also were aware of the importance of respecting "institutional autonomy" and that NACAC does not want to have too many rules for its members. But at the same time, he said that there were valid reasons to set limits on early offers of admission. It is not good for students to be weighing admissions officers when their high school counselors aren't around, he said. In addition, Caruso noted the widespread concerns about increased anxiety and competition in admissions.

"We talk so much in our profession about fit and match, and if we continue to accelerate this process, how does that allow a student to examine options fully?" he asked.


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