Nearly three-fourths of colleges with "early action" programs -- in which students have an earlier application deadline and find out earlier than other applicants if they have been admitted -- saw an increase in such applications in 2011. And more than two-thirds reported admitting increasing numbers of applicants that way, according to data  from the National Association for College Admission Counseling.
The University of San Diego is one of those institutions. It has seen a 52 percent increase in early action applications since 2010. But the university has made an unusual admissions decision: it is doing away with early action. From now on, the university will have one deadline for all applicants.
Early action, unlike "early decision," does not bind those admitted to enroll. And as a result, early action is less controversial than early decision. But for about a decade now, many admissions experts have questioned whether the proliferation of early options (and the perception, true at some institutions, that early applicants are more likely to be admitted) is good for applicants. Counselors have expressed fear that many high school applicants, especially those who are the first in their families to go to college, aren't in a position to decide early, and need to weigh all options (including financial aid) to make decisions.
Harvard and Princeton Universities in 2006 announced they were ending early admissions programs, and there was speculation at the time that many institutions would follow, but that never happened. And last year the universities announced the resumption of early admissions. 
Stephen Pultz, assistant vice president of enrollment management at the University of San Diego, said that his institution did not favor early applicants. Nor did the university see a higher yield (the percentage of admitted applicants who enroll) than that of regular admits. But he said that the numbers alone were distorting the process.
This year, about one-third of the university's 16,577 undergraduate applicants applied early. As the numbers grew, he said, his staff was hesitant to admit too many students early in the process, and so it ended up deferring more applicants to the regular admission cycle go up -- undercutting the theoretical advantage to applicants of applying early (finding out early). Meanwhile, handling the early applicants took too much time. "There was an enormous strain on our staff to read the applications in a timely way."
So San Diego -- which does not have early decision -- decided to end early action.
The university has used a November 15 deadline for early action, generally informing applicants of decisions in mid-December, and a January 15 regular deadline, informing applicants of the outcomes in March. Now there will be a single deadline of December 15 for everyone.
Some of the surge in early applications experienced by San Diego may be the result of state conditions, Pultz said. High school guidance counselors in California have been pushing students to finish their applications for the state's university systems earlier in the fall, so those who are also applying to a private institution like San Diego may be motivated to finish those applications as well.
But Pultz said that he was concerned about the "frenzy" in which high school students hear that they must apply early. Even though this was never true in San Diego's admissions policies, he said he saw the perception among applicants, who hear that "if you really want to get into this school or that school, you have to apply early." And with "the proliferation of [early] programs that serve individual institutions has created the feeling that there's a game to be played" in the timing of an application.
San Diego has opted to stop playing that game.