Saying it wants to increase access for students from low-income families, the University of Virginia will end its binding early decision program beginning with those applying for the class that enters in fall 2008.
Monday's announcement  comes less than two weeks after Harvard University decided to end its early admissions program , citing a process that many feel gives advantages to wealthier students who do not need to shop for financial aid packages. Princeton University followed suit  a week after Harvard's move by eliminating its binding early decision program.
“There was a feeling that we shouldn’t have had early decision to begin with," said John Blackburn, dean of admission at Virginia. "Students commit to a course of action early and aren't getting anything other than an early answer in return. It struck us as unfair. Our binding plan discouraged low-income students and underrepresented minorities from applying."
Blackburn said early decision had become inconsistent with the goals of AccessUVA , a financial aid program designed to lower college costs for the lowest-income students who apply to the university. He said that of the more than 170 students who qualified for the program's maximum financial aid package last year, only one applied under the early decision plan. Fewer than 20 of the 947 students accepted under the early decision plan last December applied for financial aid.
Virginia has had a binding early decision program since the 1960s. Early decision applicants account for roughly 30 percent of Virginia's incoming class each year. Forty percent of students who apply early are admitted annually, compared with 35 percent who apply regular decision, Blackburn said.
Virginia plans to make January 2 the application deadline for all students.
Blackburn, a member of the College Board's task force that deals with access for low-income students, said that the idea of dropping the early decision program had been discussed at UVa, and that Harvard's announcement "changed the conversation and said to us, this is possible."
Much of the speculation since the Harvard announcement has focused on whether more private colleges would follow suit. Many admissions experts have said that few private institutions would be willing to give up the control that early admissions gives them over their class composition, and that only the Harvards and Princetons could afford to do so -- confident that a critical mass of admitted applicants would still enroll.
Virginia's annoucement reflects another reality: Some top public universities are so popular within their states that they don't need early decision to be assured of a good class.
Blackburn said he expects other public institutions to make similar moves. In June, the University of Delaware announced plans to drop its early decision program . The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill eliminated its binding early admissions program in 2002 but has kept its nonbinding early action program.
Steve Farmer, UNC’s assistant provost and director of undergraduate admissions, said the university yielded 2 percent fewer students in the first year after cutting its binding program -- but that the yield is now up above where it was before 2002.
Farmer said the two applicant pools at UNC -- early and regular -- don't differ much as far as race and socioeconomic status are concerned. He said the timing of the application is less important than the aid package a college offers. While the number of low-income applicants didn't rise immediately after the university ended its early decision program, it did spike after the introduction of Carolina Covenant , a financial aid program for the neediest students.
As elite public institutions, Farmer said that UNC and UVa "have much less at stake as far as survival, and have the freedom to act boldly," largely because many of the applicants will probably still list the colleges as their first choice.
Farmer said both public and private colleges can do more than what they currently are to promote access. "We operate out of a sense of fear -- that if we change something in admissions, our schools will collapse. Any time a school acts in the interest in leveling the playing field and reducing stress on students, that's a good thing for everyone."