Ken Fox, a college and career counselor at Ladue Horton Watkins High School, in St. Louis, says that more and more seniors come up to him each year just after summer break and proudly exclaim that they’ve gotten into college. “I try to share their enthusiasm,” says the long-time counselor, ”but, on the inside, I say ‘Boy, he or she really didn’t have the chance to consider all of their options.’ ”
According to new information gathered by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, institutions are increasingly admitting students before they ever take the first class of their senior year of high school. Some juniors, in effect, are making commitments to attend an institution just as they would in traditional early decision programs.
More than 100 directors of admission have reported that they “accept regular decision applications and provide notification of admission prior to September 1 of the high school senior year.” A range of institutions -- including several smaller liberal arts private and public colleges, state universities, and even a few more selective institutions -- have provided information to the association that confirms the practice.
The NACAC survey was sent to the directors of admissions of every four-year institution in September, and the survey was completed by a combination of admission officers and institutional researchers. Six hundred and sixty institutions responded to the questionnaire, a response rate of approximately 30 percent.
The apparent growth of early admissions is a development that has left many education and counseling experts alarmed, since there’s little evidence that earlier admission is beneficial for students, and many have already been concerned about early decision programs that don't take place until the fall of the senior year.
“I think this is educationally reprehensible,” said Lloyd Thacker, founder of the Education Conservancy, an organization focused on shifting the admissions process back toward more educational goals. “Where’s the incentive to do well in your senior year? Why not just lay back and snooze?”
Thacker also said that such admissions policies may be more beneficial to wealthier students, since financial aid packages are not available so early in the admissions season. Thus, cost wouldn’t be a factor for a student who chooses to make a binding decision that may come with incentives like early choice of housing.
“We’re killing kids in this college process,” said Phyllis Steinbrecher, a long-time educational consultant based in Westport, Conn. “I think parents and colleges have lost their heads.” She suggested that such early admissions are “just another gimmick to get to students before they’ve had the opportunity to review all of their options.”
Pete Caruso, chair of NACAC’s Admission Practices Committee and associate director of undergraduate admission at Boston College, says that the super early decisions can also be unfair to students whose high school counselors don’t or can’t work in the summer to provide a student with the materials he or she would need to apply as early as their peers.
Evan Montague, director of admissions at Alma College, in Michigan, said that about 50 students apply and are accepted to the private institution before September 1 each year. Students who pay an early deposit fee are given priority in room and parking assignments.
Montague said there isn’t anything nefarious about Alma’s admissions policy. The college requires students to submit transcripts at the end of their senior year, but Montague said that “we don’t necessarily go through and study them.”
“The only time where we would offer a student admission before the start of their senior year is through our Early Admission Option,” said Michael Hall, associate director of admission at Carnegie Mellon University. “However, we get very few students who apply to this program and even fewer who we actually end up admitting.” The option, he said, is geared toward students who will have completed their entire high school curriculum by the end of their junior year and have no additional classes available to them at their high school. Hall said that for the fall 2006 class, Carnegie Mellon received 10 applications via the early option out of about 18,400 total applications.
Heather Eckstein, interim co-director of admission at Pittsburg State University, in Kansas, noted that, by law, any student in the state who achieves a score of 21 or higher on his or her ACT test is automatically granted admission to one of the six public institutions in the state.
“It’s not necessarily a strategy,” said Eckstein. “It’s simply our way of having a leg up in welcoming students.” She said that while the law encourages students to stay in Kansas, she believes that the early admission may result in some senior year slacking off.
“Is this beneficial to the student?” asked Eckstein. “I don’t really know.”
Caruso doesn’t think the process is beneficial to students or counselors. His NACAC committee is in charge of revising the organization’s Statement of Principles of Good Practice.  The committee is currently proposing that all college and university application deadlines be no earlier than October 15 each year, and that the earlierst notification date be no earlier than September 15.
“We simply want to keep the application process to senior year,” said Caruso, who has worked in admissions for 19 years. “We need to guard against deadline creep.”