Talk to many a college admissions dean or president of a college with competitive admissions, and ask them about certain policies and the refrain is common. “We know it’s not really the right thing to do, and I’d love to cut back, but I can’t – since other colleges do it, if I don’t keep up, I’ll lose my best students, and then my SAT average will go down, and my rankings will drop….”
The hesitation about acting individually to curb the awarding of merit aid to financially well off students, among other practices, has led to talk of seeking broader antitrust exemptions  to allow colleges to act in concert. The conventional wisdom is that unless you are Harvard or a few other institutions, you can’t act alone without taking a hit.
In the last few years, some colleges have pulled back from the policies everyone else says they’d like to pull back from. Notably the sky hasn’t fallen (and neither have their admissions numbers). Consider the cases of Hamilton College, which completely eliminated merit aid to spend more on need-based aid, and of Tufts University, which imposed a limit on its use of early decision. Both colleges are competitive in admissions, with excellent academic reputations – but neither has even close to the endowment or admissions clout of Harvard or the other institutions at the top of the admissions pecking order.
Hamilton last year announced that it would stop making any merit awards (it didn’t take away those awarded to students admitted previously) and would add the money to need-based aid. Like many colleges, Hamilton has used merit aid to go after students who were at the top of its academic profile – students who might turn down Hamilton without some extra incentive. About 50 applicants a year who had no financial need were offered half-tuition scholarships, while another 50 who were determined to have some financial need were offered the equivalent as funds on top of their demonstrated need. The idea was to get another 10 students in each group – the students with absolutely top credentials who would raise the bar for the entire class (of 460).
Admissions experts -- especially those who support the use of merit aid -- say that if you give up those students whom you are enrolling because of merit aid, traditional measures of academic quality will drop. At Hamilton this year, however, the opposite is true. Average math and verbal SAT scores are up for the class that will enter this fall by 12 points, to 1368. The percentage of students in the top 10 percent of their high school class is up to 78 percent, from 74 percent. While yield (the percentage of admitted applicants who accepted the offer) dropped slightly (to 33 percent from 34 percent), that’s modest, especially in a year that so many colleges added to their aid budgets.
Monica Inzer, dean of admissions and financial aid at Hamilton, said that about 5 percent of Hamilton’s $21 million aid budget has previously been spent on merit aid, and that while that’s not a huge percentage, “$1 million is $1 million.”
Inzer said that she didn’t think all merit aid was bad, and that it had helped Hamilton in the years prior to her arrival there. She said that she didn’t see Hamilton’s experience as demonstrating that one should never use merit aid, but that one shouldn’t assume merit aid – once started – should stay.
“The problem is that schools get used to merit and it's working for them and it's hard to back off -- you don't ever get a chance to freeze things in time and say 'is this still working and needed,” she said. “The rest of the world has changed and so has our pool.”
In Hamilton’s case, she said, the college was doing a better job of attracting the kinds of applicants it wanted without merit aid offers, and her greater concern was the problem of growing percentages of the potential student body who need aid to be able to enroll. Looking at the demographics 5 or 10 years out, she said, it’s clear that colleges need to increase their aid budgets for low-income students. Hamilton isn’t need-blind, she said, “and to be not admitting somebody because they couldn’t pay and to give merit aid to someone else didn’t feel right,” she said.
This year, only 7 percent of decisions were “need sensitive,” meaning that only students without need were admitted, a percentage that is down from previous years.
While Hamilton completely eliminated a policy, Tufts opted not to eliminate but to decrease the share of its class admitted through early decision. Over the last 10 years, early decision has shifted from a practice used to admit relatively small shares of classes to close to half of students at some highly competitive colleges. While Harvard and Princeton Universities and a few public flagships have eliminated it, most colleges say that early decision is wonderful for institutions in that it gives them more control over their class pools, and makes them more competitive as they reject larger shares of the students who apply on the regular schedule.
In turn, many high school students have felt increasing pressure to apply early – even if they aren’t entirely sure of where they want to enroll – because they believe that their odds are more secure that way. Because such admissions savvy is more present in wealthy suburbs or private schools, many have questioned whether it is fair to admit large portions of a class that way.
Lee Coffin, dean of undergraduate admissions, said he was at a meeting of the National Association for College Admission Counseling a few years ago, and at a session in which admissions deans were explaining to high school counselors how they see early decision, and the image he had in his mind was of facing “the villagers with pitchforks.”
High school counselors were saying – loudly – that early decision was out of control in a way that was encouraging students to make poor decisions.
Coffin said that he sees value in early decision, but also the down side, especially since he has found those admitted early are less diverse and more wealthy than the applicant pool as a whole. Tufts was at the time filling 42 percent of its class with early decision applicants – and decided to impose a cap of one-third of the class. By imposing discipline on the process, Coffin said that Tufts doesn’t even go up to its cap and this year admitted only 31 percent of its class through early decision.
As at Hamilton, adopting a policy that conventional wisdom says will hurt admissions numbers has not done so. The four admissions cycles that have taken place with the cap have seen applications increase to 15,643 from 13,700 and SAT averages go up to 1405, a 100-point gain.
Coffin said that reducing early decision results in better decision making. When the admissions committee is reviewing early decision applicants, he said, “it has given us more discipline. I can push back and say, ‘you’ve only got x number of seats,’” he said. “When you are unchecked, they all look good, and you say ‘what’s 5 more students, what’s 10 more?’”
While Coffin said he has no doubts the change resulted in a better class, there was an initial – tiny – drop in selectivity, as the university went from admitting 27 percent of applicants to 27.5 percent. But that’s now down to 25 percent. But he suggested that colleges shouldn’t be afraid of such changes – as long as they are for a good reason. “You are talking about tiny fractions of selectivity, and that doesn’t seem consequential.”