Early Decision and the Adolescent Brain

Because of maturity level, some high school students may be at even more of a disadvantage than their peers when it comes to making an early commitment to a college, study finds.
February 12, 2009

In the debate over early decision admissions programs, much of the focus has been on socioeconomic equity. Students are more likely to have enough information to apply early, the criticism goes, if they come from families and attend high schools that encourage an early focus on developing a first choice. Indeed many colleges report that their early decision applicants -- who must commit to enroll if accepted -- are more likely than the applicant pool as a whole to be white and wealthy. So when colleges fill large portions of their classes early, many fear, the disadvantaged lose out.

The National Association for College Admission Counseling is releasing a report today that suggests a different kind of equity issue: the differing rates at which adolescents mature. The study reviews the latest research on adolescent development and suggests that many high schoolers are unlikely to have the maturity to make early college choices -- or to be making the academic choices in high school that set them on a path to finding a good match for college.

The report -- by Barbara Schneider, a professor of education and sociology at Michigan State University -- is not issued as NACAC policy. But it is consistent with many of the cautions that association leaders have made about trends in admissions, particularly the rush to decide early and to view the admissions process as a game.

Research about adolescent development has many apparent contradictions, Schneider notes. Physically and in terms of sexual relationships, young people mature more quickly than they did in previous generations. But she also notes that in terms of parental involvement, an unwillingness to make long-term commitments, and other factors, today's young people show less maturity than previous generations.

Numerous studies also have found, Schneider writes, a mismatch between adolescent ambitions and their sense of educational plans. These "unaligned ambitions," she says, mean that many high school students have some idea of their career or life goals, but very little sense of an educational plan to get there.

Combined with the "college fever" that grips many families -- with much tension and competitiveness about getting into college -- early decision may be psychologically wrong for many students, she writes. They haven't figured out what they want to do or how to reach goals, and yet feel pressured to commit, she says. (Schneider notes that high school students do not mature at the same rate, so her argument isn't that early decision making is wrong for everyone, but that it's wrong for many.)

Further, she writes, this problem is exacerbated by the socioeconomic inequities. Those students with access to counselors and with strong family knowledge of college admissions may be more likely -- if they aren't psychologically ready to commit to college early -- to get help in deciding.

David Hawkins, director of public policy and research for NACAC, said that he hoped the report might "rekindle" discussion of early decision issues. After a few elite universities dropped early decision in 2006, some hoped for a groundswell, but it didn't take place. Hawkins noted that even if colleges don't drop early decision, a "de-escalation" might reduce the pressure many students feel.

The new report describes trends in admissions that have been evident well before the current economic turmoil. And this year, many private colleges have been pleased to see an increase in early decision applications. Hawkins said that the downturn "has the potential to make it worse," with more students feeling more pressure. "For both institutions and students, the early decision game is all about hedging against uncertainty, and these are some of the most uncertain times we've had in decades, perhaps ever in college admissions," he said.

By focusing on adolescent development -- an early decision factor not previously studied -- Hawkins said that NACAC hopes to better inform colleges. "Many of our counselors have felt that colleges might be making decisions about early decision strategies in a vacuum," he said. "The primary purpose was to expose our entire profession to the idea that adolescent development" should be part of their thinking about early decision.


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