Early Action Backlash

At admissions meeting, high school counselors say a common practice is out of control and deans who abandoned the practice are cheered.

October 2, 2015

SAN DIEGO -- A few years back, many seeking to reform college admissions focused on early decision, under which applicants pledge to enroll if admitted, and both apply and find out if they got in months before the normal schedule. The system, they said, favored wealthier applicants and forced high school students to commit to a college earlier than was wise for many of them. Much of the discussion focused on the most competitive colleges and universities.

But if a session here at the annual meeting of the National Association for College Admission Counseling was any indication, the real issue today may be early action, in which applicants are notified early but don't have to commit. Hundreds attended, many standing in line to get into the packed room, and counselors made clear, in their applause and their interviews before and after the panel, that they wanted colleges to scale back or kill early action. It is adding pressure on applicants, their families and their high schools, they said, and not helping anyone educationally. Because of the lack of a penalty for opting not to enroll, they said, more and more applicants are trying to apply somewhere early action.

And "early" is just getting too early, with a trickle-down impact, they said. Becky Bowlby of Lower Merion High School, outside of Philadelphia, said that she now offers a seminar on financial planning for college for the parents of elementary school students. She joked that she was drawing the line there, and would not move into pre-K.

As if to back up the criticism, two admissions leaders (from the University of San Diego and the University of Connecticut) shared experiences dropping early action. Both said that it had been encouraging bad decisions by applicants and their institutions -- and that they were better off without it. But another admissions leader (from Temple University) talked about adding early action two years ago and being pleased with the results. And while high school counselors cheered San Diego and UConn, most said they thought Temple was the norm.

Stephen Pultz, assistant vice president of enrollment management at the University of San Diego, said his institution changed because early action was creating as many problems as it was solving. So many students were applying without necessarily having a clear commitment to the university that it was impossible to predict yield, the percentage of accepted applicants who enroll. Early applicants were being deferred in large numbers, leaving them hanging even though only 20 percent would be offered admission. "We weren't serving students well," Pultz said.

"They were just applying early and caught up in this frenzy."

Further, those who did apply early and who were accepted and enrolled tended to be white, female and from California. "If you visit our campus, you will see those are not underrepresented populations," he said.

So in 2012, the university ended early action. Applications dropped by about 10 percent. But those who applied were more likely to enroll (yield went up from 15 to 17 percent). And minority enrollment is on the rise, as is total enrollment.

Colleges may see applications go down and still be able to admit a high-quality class, he said.

One lesson of the experience, Pultz said, "is that you reach a point where you really have enough applications." That line drew sustained, enthusiastic applause from the audience, primarily people working at high schools.

Nathan Fuerst, director of admissions at UConn, said that the experience there was similar. The university saw an application drop (that has since been reversed) and a better yield, that has since gone down a little. He urged those thinking about yield and application totals related to early action programs to be cautious. For example, he said that the yield drop at UConn lately has related to big increases in the number of applicants from outside the United States, who have a lower yield by far than do Connecticut residents.

But he too said that working without early action was a success.

Jim Van Blunk, senior associate director of undergraduate admissions at Temple, had a sense of the audience's views when he said he felt that as a proponent of early action he was "in the Coliseum with the lions."

But he stood his ground that early action can be good for applicants and the university, based on Temple's experience from starting the option two years ago.

Since starting early action, he said, the total yield for Temple has gone from 30 to 33 percent. At a time of rising numbers of applications, 8,000 of the 30,000 Temple received in the last year were for early action. Van Blunk said that standards were the same, but that the admit rate was higher for early-action applicants. He said that was because some of the best applicants apply that way.

But Van Blunk said that this was another case of people blaming early action for what was going on beforehand. He said that Temple's strongest applicants have always tended to apply earlier in the year than others, so that early action hadn't really changed things.

"This needs to be about what fits your institution best," he said.

While the audience was far kinder than the lions of Rome, there were no signs Van Blunk won anyone over. The questions included numerous statements on how early action is distorting the process by which counselors work with students and families.

One counselor said that, at high schools that send most students on to college, the pressure to apply early action is overwhelming. At her high school, she said, 85-90 percent of those applying to college were applying to at least one place early. "Early decision never drove the bus, but early action is completely driving the bus," she said.


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