Subtleties and Ethics of Early Decision

Admissions officers consider how to be fair on aid awards to early and regular applicants, and weigh compromise on acceptances before senior year of high school.
September 27, 2007

National debates on early decision programs -- in which applicants to college pledge to enroll if admitted, and are informed early -- focus on whether the system favors the wealthy. Conventional wisdom (and plenty of evidence from elite institutions) suggests that savvy students from better high schools are more likely to apply early -- and to fill a large share of the class at elite institutions.

But discussion Wednesday at the annual meeting of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, in Austin, focused on possible disadvantage to early decision applicants, and on the question of whether students who are not enrolling at elite institutions may benefit from a form of very early admissions officers that many high school counselors view as inappropriate.

The association -- whose members include both high school and college officials who deal with the college admissions process -- will be voting Saturday on various amendments to its ethics code for members. Wednesday, however, was the day for proposals to be formally unveiled, and the measures related to early decision were the topics most on the mind of members.

The question of aid practices points to a way that some colleges use early decision against applicants. The policy proposed would urge "comparable" treatment of early and regular decision applicants when it comes to aid, funds awarded either based on merit or financial need. Ken Fox, chair of NACAC'S Admissions Practices Committee, said that the rule was consistent with association policies that previously have urged colleges not to create an unfair edge for early applicants. By the same principle, Fox said, there shouldn't be "disincentives" for people to apply early. And aid could be such a disincentive.

While discussion of the topic at the public portion of the meeting didn't go into too much detail, counselors explained privately the problem that they see. Some colleges with limited aid budgets apparently view early applicants they have accepted as sure things, and appear to then use "preferential packaging" to provide more aid to those who applied regular decision, and who may have options at other institutions. Generally, counselors said, these colleges aren't the most prestigious or wealthy. But counselors are frustrated when they see students with lesser academic qualifications or more financial means who appear to make out better than some of the early applicants.

The other issue headed to a vote Saturday would alter a policy adopted by NACAC last year, when the association voted to bar member colleges from admitting students to the 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.

But the newly adopted policy has prompted a backlash from supporters of the kinds of admissions offers the policy bars, and some have been urging the association to completely repeal the measure Saturday. In what supporters were calling compromise, a measure was proposed that would keep some limits on when some colleges can make admissions offers. But the policy would give other colleges wide leeway -- and some supporters of last year's policy believe that what they consider loopholes are much too wide.

The proposed change would say that admissions offers could not be made until a transcript is available for six semesters of high school work, effectively requiring the junior year to be finished, but leaving open the possibility of summer offers that are barred by the current policy. But the measure would also allow even earlier offers by community colleges or other open admissions institutions that base admissions decisions on the application alone, not on a transcript.

Robert Spatig, director of admissions at the University of South Florida and the author of new proposal, said in an interview that it was important for NACAC to set policies based not on the experiences only of small, competitive private colleges, but on institutions like his -- large publics for which admissions aren't competitive -- because they educate the vast majority of students.

"We're providing access and our processes are different," he said.

When large public institutions offer admission early, it's not a matter of trying to gain an edge over another college or trying to disrupt the senior year, but to "get these students to consider college at all," Spatig said. Early offers are a way to get these students thinking about college, taking the right courses during the senior year, and spending the necessary time figuring out how to pay for college. Spatig and others were critical of NACAC for having an admissions policy committee whose members do not include anyone who works in public higher education. "We're not all the same," he said.

At the same time, in his public comments, he said that he recognized that some high schools have felt disrupted by early offers and that he was offering his proposal in "a positive spirit of compromise."

Diane Freytag, director of counseling and advising at the Overlake School, a private school in Redmond, Wash., and a member of the NACAC admissions committee, said she respected those concerns, but was also troubled by the way the admissions process "has been moved up" earlier than the senior year. Under the plan being proposed, she said, some students could be receiving offers in their sophomore years of high school.

"Students need time to make an informed choice," she said.

Fox, the admissions committee chair and a counselor at Ladue Horton Watkins High School, in St. Louis, said that the panel was not taking a stand on the proposed changes. Even if the new language is adopted, he said, some limits will have been put in place -- while no limits existed before last year. "The admissions creep issue will have been addressed," he said.


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