The Move Back to Early Admissions

November 17, 2010

Four years ago, momentum appeared to be growing for competitive colleges to eliminate programs in which some high school students applied early and found out early whether they were admitted -- sometimes with the requirement that they commit to enroll if admitted. In a single month in 2006, Harvard and Princeton Universities and then the University of Virginia announced that they were eliminating early admissions programs, which critics said favored wealthy students. Some institutions that didn't abandon the practice pledged to curb it -- and there was much talk in admissions circles about a new skepticism of the approach.

The momentum halted when Yale University a few months later announced that it would keep its early action program (which, like Harvard's, did not require a commitment to enroll). But on Tuesday came news that discouraged some critics of early admissions programs: Virginia, one of the institutions that was seen as a leader in abandoning early admissions, is bringing it back. There is a key difference: the early program Virginia abandoned was a binding program in which admitted applicants had to agree to enroll, and the new program is non-binding.

Meanwhile, competitive colleges with early admissions programs are reporting record numbers of applicants this year: Applications are up 25 percent at Northwestern University, 17 percent at the University of Pennsylvania, and by significant numbers at many other prestigious institutions. These increases are on top of increases reported by many colleges in early decision last year, according to data from the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

"I fear other colleges are going to go back to admitting more students early. I think the momentum may now be going the other way," said Lloyd Thacker, founder of the Education Conservancy and a critic of early admissions, upon being told the news about Virginia.

Greg W. Roberts, dean of admissions at U.Va., said in an interview that by just about every measure, the university's decision to eliminate early decision was a huge success. The university has seen increases in the academic quality of admitted students and also in their socioeconomic diversity. So why restore an early option?

Roberts said that the university is responding to student demand. "We have been hearing from guidance counselors and parents about their desire to have an early program again." And while Roberts said that they didn't think the restoration would have a noticeable impact on Virginia's admissions statistics, he said that he does meet guidance counselors who tell him about outstanding high school students who were initially interested in Virginia, but who opt to apply somewhere else -- early decision -- because they want to have their college choice resolved. "From an institutional self-interest perspective, we may see some students we are not seeing now."

He said that to these students, an early option "in some ways reduces the level of anxiety and stress."

National statistics from NACAC suggest that early admissions programs have higher rates of admission than do regular admissions programs -- although some admissions deans point out that those who apply early may be better applicants, so this does not necessarily mean that standards are different. Roberts said that he was committed to that being the case at Virginia -- and that the university had such an approach when it had early decision before 2006.

"I can honestly say that when we reviewed those applications that we did not give students bumps or talk about the fact that students will come" if admitted, he said. "It was a pure review," and that's what early applicants can expect going forward.

When Virginia eliminated early decision in 2006, its leaders said that the move reflected a commitment to attracting low-income students. John Casteen III, then president, said in a statement at the time: “It has become the case since about 1990 that few students from low-income families have applied for early decision.... The reasons are several, but in the end the effect of early decision nationally and here in Virginia appears to be that the opportunity that early decision has represented has come somehow to be the property of our most advantaged applicants rather than the common property of all applicants."

Roberts said Tuesday that he was aware of such concerns. But he said that research about other universities with non-binding early action programs demonstrated that "in some cases," these programs attracted a pool "as diverse as the one that came along a few months later." He stressed that the new program at Virginia isn't the same as the binding early decision one eliminated in 2006.

It may also be worth noting, however, that Harvard -- which drew widespread praise for eliminating an early program in 2006 -- eliminated a non-binding one just like the one Virginia is now creating. And in doing so, Harvard officials cited evidence that low-income, first generation and minority students -- those without as much help in the college admissions process -- are less likely than others to apply early.

Derek Bok, then interim president of Harvard, said at the time: "Early admission programs tend to advantage the advantaged. Students from more sophisticated backgrounds and affluent high schools often apply early to increase their chances of admission, while minority students and students from rural areas, other countries, and high schools with fewer resources miss out."

Thacker of the Education Conservancy said he could not dispute the Virginia analysis that some students want early options. Further, he said it was correct to assume that many colleges find it easier to build their classes and to attract more applicants when they offer early options and admit many students that way.

"I think early programs can help individual students and families, and individual colleges," he said. "I think the problem comes when you think systemwide. Is it helping education in America? I don't see any evidence that it is. Early programs tend to favor those who are well-resourced. They serve the interests of individuals and institutions that have access to the right information. I don't see how they serve broad public interest goals like access and equity and diversity."

Thacker said he believed non-binding early programs are marginally better than binding programs, but that the difference did not affect his overall critique of early admissions. "Do we need to do this?" he asked.

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