Mixed Messages on Early Decision

While only a few colleges eliminated the controversial practice, some institutions and applicants may be moderating their use. Of course, new controversial practices are emerging.
September 23, 2008

New data on college admissions suggest that "early decision" isn't going anywhere, but that what struck many experts as a mad rush to increase its use may be slowing down a bit. After two years in which healthy majorities of four-year colleges reported that they were receiving more and more of such applications, the percentage reporting an increase dropped to 49 percent for the fall 2007 admissions cycle. In addition, the percentage of colleges reporting that they increased the share of students admitted in this way fell to 36 percent, from 47 percent the year before and 48 percent the year before that.

The data come from the annual survey on admissions practices released by the National Association for College Admission Counseling. NACAC's annual survey provides a snapshot on a range of issues -- some are long-time hot topics like early decision and others are emerging issues such as "priority applications" in which some colleges are sending out applications that are partially filled out.

The survey is being released in advance of NACAC's annual meeting this week, which is expected to have packed sessions on many topics. Already many admissions officers are debating a report that will be released at the meeting calling for colleges to be much more skeptical about the use of standardized testing. And on Monday, testing companies started to respond to the report, which could encourage other colleges to make testing optional in their admissions processes.

Second Thoughts on Early Decision?

The data on early decision suggest a slowing down of the stampede in that direction -- but by no means an abandonment of the practice. For years, many educators have worried that colleges were filling too large a share of their classes through early decision programs -- in which students pledge to enroll if admitted, and both apply and find out if they have been accepted early.

Many worried that the programs were another boost to savvy, wealthy applicants, who tend to use early decision in large proportions. Others noted that low-income applicants are unlikely to apply in a system that doesn't let them compare financial aid packages from multiple institutions. And others decried the pressure on students -- many of whom reported that they felt a need to apply early, even if they hadn't necessarily figured out the best possible college.

At the same time, defenders of early decision have said that it helps some students minimize the stress of the application process (because their college decisions are made earlier in the senior year of high school) while allowing colleges to more carefully fill a freshman class.

When Harvard University abandoned its early program in 2006, many hoped the tide would turn. A few prominent institutions followed, but most did not. In fact, the data from NACAC suggest that Harvard was acting at a time that interest in early admissions was surging. Notably, many of the colleges that didn't abandon early decision did say that they thought its role had become inflated and was growing out of control. The figures from NACAC suggest that at least some applicants and some colleges have stopped what had been an annual pattern of more students applying that way -- and more slots being filled that way.

Changes in Early Decision, 2005-7

Percentage of colleges reporting early decision applications... 2005 2006 2007
--Increased 58% 63% 49%
--Stayed the same 24% 12% 19%
--Decreased 18% 25% 31%
Percentage of colleges reporting that students admitted early...      
--Increased 48% 47% 36%
--Stayed the same 31% 16% 32%
--Decreased 21% 38% 32%

David Hawkins, director of public policy and research for NACAC, said that the figures could show some more hesitancy about early decision, but that a few more years of data will be needed to be sure.

But beyond the public discussion of the issue, Hawkins noted that current economic trends (which weren't as evident during the time period covered by the new NACAC data) may discourage more students from wanting to decide early. "It would not be surprising if students were shying away from early decision applications, if for no other reason than to leave their options for financial aid as open as possible," he said. "The data could be a signal that students are less willing to commit so early in the process."

Even if that's the case, he said that it "is probably too early to tell whether colleges would begin to respond in kind by moving away from early decision."

Questions About 'Priority' Admissions

Early decision is the subject of controversy primarily at colleges with competitive admissions. The NACAC survey also draws attention to practices that may be growing at less competitive institutions, such as "priority" admissions.

That's the term for applications sent -- partially completed -- to students. These applications deviate from the traditional model of application, which is student-originated. Among all colleges surveyed, 16 percent reported using priority admissions. But among competitive colleges -- defined in the survey as those that accept fewer than 50 percent of applicants -- none of them reported using priority admissions. So the trend is confined to those that admit most applicants. Of colleges using priority applications, none waive transcript or other routine requirements, but 38 percent do not charge the regular application fee.

The criteria cited by colleges for selecting would-be applicants for priority applications are (in order): contact with admissions office (79 percent), test scores (65 percent), geographic region (55 percent), high school attended (21 percent), participating in summer enrichment programs (5 percent) and economic status (4 percent).

Hawkins said that the question on the practice was added last year because NACAC's Admission Practices Committee has been hearing some concerns about the use of priority admissions and whether it raises ethical issues. "If priority applications are primarily sent to a privileged group of students, do they further widen the gap between students who will, in all likelihood, already enroll in college, and those who could most benefit from the simplified admission process, but may have to jump through more admission hoops simply because they were not included in the priority application list?" asked Hawkins.

At this point, he said, the committee is gathering more information and has not reached any conclusions.

Among other trends highlighted in the report:

  • The trend of students applying to many colleges continues to increase, but not at dramatic rates. The most recent data show 19 percent of students applying to seven or more colleges, up from 18 percent the year before. The percentage of students applying to three or more colleges held steady -- at 71 percent.
  • Despite some media hysteria about the difficulty of getting into college, most institutions admit most applicants. Nationally, 68 percent of applicants are admitted. Those institutions that admit fewer than 50 percent of applicants receive only 31 percent of all applications, and enroll only 18 percent of first year students.
  • Online applications are becoming more and more standard. Colleges reported receiving an average of 68 percent of applications online, up from 58 percent the year before. More selective institutions tended to receive larger shares of applications online.

The Debate on Testing

As NACAC released more information about the state of college admissions, testing companies and critics were starting to size up the report just released by a special task force on standardized testing. The report was highly critical of the role of testing. While not ruling out its value, it suggested that colleges need to be more certain that testing adds something to the admissions system -- and suggested that many institutions and applicants don't need testing to make good decisions.

Most admissions officials who read the report agreed that it was a serious challenge to the testing industry.

But the College Board issued a statement largely praising the NACAC panel and focusing on areas other than the call to reconsider standardized testing. The College Board said that it shared NACAC's concern about the test-prep industry and was "in complete agreement" that the best way for students to prepare for college is with a solid high school curriculum.

While the NACAC report suggested that criticisms that the SAT doesn't predict equally the success for all ethnic and racial groups in college needed to be taken seriously, the College Board said that it was "gratified that the NACAC Commission agrees that the SAT is a fair test."

"We further underscore our long-held concern about inequities in the K-12 education system in this country, which result in some students being less prepared for college admissions and, ultimately, college success."

On the question of whether standardized testing is needed, the College Board said: "Hundreds of national research studies show that the SAT is a valid predictor of college success, and it also serves the important function of guarding against grade inflation at the high school level.... The SAT and high school grades are both very predictive of first-year college success and, because they are slightly different measures, together, they are extremely powerful."

The ACT responded in a different way. In an interview, Jon Erickson, vice president of the ACT for educational services, said that the organization supported the call for more transparency, and for more studies of the validity of testing.

But Erickson said that the report may have been written with "SAT lenses on" and not sufficiently recognizing the differences between the SAT and the ACT. The ACT is closely patterned on the high school curriculum, which is what the NACAC panel wants to emphasize, he said. And many of the colleges that have been dropping testing requirements -- while institutions that have accepted both tests -- are in parts of the country where the SAT is the norm.

"We're concerned that we are broad-brush mentioned," he said. At the same time, Erickson said he looked forward to talking with NACAC officials about the report.

Robert Schaeffer, public education director for the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, said he thought the report would be quite influential. Schaeffer's group is a critic of standardized testing (both the SAT and ACT) and has been encouraging colleges to drop them. He noted that, at many colleges, some admissions officials or others have been pushing for a move away from testing requirements, but have faced some opposition or fear about such a move.

"The NACAC report gives both cover and ammunition to folks pushing for test-optional admissions around the country," he said. While calling it "too soon" to predict the number of colleges that might change policies, he said that he knows of "about two dozen colleges and universities in the pipeline of reevaluating their admissions requirements."


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