The Early-Decision Racket

Early-decision programs—whereby a student applies early to a single school, receives an early answer, and promises to attend if accepted—have added an insane intensity to middle-class obsessions about college. They also distort the admissions process, rewarding the richest students from the most exclusive high schools and penalizing nearly everyone else. But the incentives for many colleges and students are as irresistable as they are perverse
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In 1978 Willis J. Stetson, known as Lee, became the dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania. The new job was quite a challenge. Penn at the time was in a weak position. In an era when big-city crime rates were still rising, its location in West Philadelphia was a handicap. Its promotional efforts took pains to point out that despite its name, the University of Pennsylvania was a private university and a member of the Ivy League, like Yale and Harvard, not of a state system, like the University of Texas. But within the Ivy League, Penn had acquired the role of backup or safety school for many applicants. "I would estimate that in the 1970s maybe forty percent of the students considered Penn their first choice," Stetson told me recently. For the rest, Penn was the place that had said yes when their first choice had said no.

Stetson's job, and that of the Penn administration in general, was to make the school so much more attractive that students with a range of options would happily choose to enroll. Through the next decade the campaign to make Penn more desirable was a success. As urban life became safer and more alluring, Penn's location, like Columbia's, became an asset rather than a problem. Stetson and his staff traveled widely to introduce the school to potential applicants. When Stetson first visited the Harvard School, a private school for boys in California's San Fernando Valley, he found that few students had even heard of Penn. The school is now coed and known as Harvard-Westlake, and of the 261 seniors who graduated last June, more than a quarter applied to Penn. The Lawrenceville School, in New Jersey, and Phillips Exeter Academy, in New Hampshire, have in recent years sent more students to Penn than to any other college. Colleges may complain bitterly about rankings of their relative quality, especially the "America's Best Colleges" list that U.S. News & World Report publishes every fall, but a college is quick to cite its ranking as a sign of improvement when its position rises. When U.S. News published its first list of best colleges, in 1983, Penn was not even ranked among national universities. Last year it was tied with Stanford for No. 6—ahead of Dartmouth, Columbia, Cornell, and Brown in the Ivy League, and of Duke and the University of Chicago.

Penn's improvement through the 1980s was due largely to its shrewd recruitment and marketing efforts. Then, in the early 1990s, like all other colleges, it encountered a "baby bust"—a drop in the total number of college applicants, caused by a fall in birth rates eighteen years before. Penn coped with that change by investing in its curriculum, faculty, and physical plant. It also made unusually effective use of the most controversial tactic in today's elite-college admissions business: the "early decision" program.

Early decision has helped not only Penn. It holds so many advantages for so many colleges that its use has grown steadily over the past decade and mushroomed in the past five years. But the advantages it gives these institutions are outweighed by the harm it does to most students and to the college-selection process. In the view of many high school counselors, it has added an insane intensity to parents' obsession about getting their children into one of a handful of prestigious colleges. Everyone involved with the early-decision process admits that it rewards the richest students from the most exclusive high schools and penalizes nearly everyone else.

The rise of early decision has coincided with, and may have contributed to, the under-reported fact that the Scholastic Aptitude Test, or SAT, is becoming more rather than less influential in determining who gets into college—despite continual criticism of the SAT's structure and effects, and despite the proposal this year from Richard Atkinson, the head of the vast University of California system, that UC campuses no longer consider SAT scores when assessing applicants. The increased use of early decision shows the strong drive for colleges to make themselves look better statistically. The increased emphasis on SAT scores shows the same thing.

Today's high school students and their parents have no choice but to adapt their applications strategies to the way early decision has changed the nature of college admissions. Tomorrow's students should hope that the increasingly obvious drawbacks of the system will lead to its elimination.

How Early Decision Works

High school college-admissions counselors often describe their work as a matchmaking process. What they mean to suggest is the great diversity of potential partners, the need to find a match that suits each student, and the reality that if things don't click with one partner, there are many other candidates.

Early decision, or ED, is an arranged marriage: both parties gain security at the expense of freedom. But the loss is asymmetrical, constraining the student much more than the institution. That is why many counselors view ED as a device promoted by colleges for their own purposes, with incidental benefits to other institutions and companies—but not to students. Seppy Basili, a vice-president of Kaplan, Inc., the test-prep firm formerly known as Stanley Kaplan, says that an emphasis on earlier applications and admissions has been a boon for his company. "We're seeing kids come to us earlier, prepare earlier, prepare more, and from a business aspect that's great," he says. The most experienced counselors at private schools and strong public high schools can also turn ED programs to their advantage, he says, because they know how to exploit the opportunities the system has created. "It would be naive to think we could ever come up with a system that would not allow someone to play games," Basili says, "but it seems like this one is built for people to play games."

Here is how the game is played. In the regular decision process, which most students still follow, students spend the first semester of their senior year deciding on the group of colleges—four, six, thirty-three in one extreme case I heard about—to which they wish to apply. Regular applications are generally due by January 1. The colleges take three months to consider the applications, and respond by early April. Students have until May 1—the single deadline in this cycle adhered to by most colleges—to send a deposit to the school they want to attend and a "No, thanks" to any other that has accepted them. The colleges tally the returns and adjust the size of their incoming classes by accepting students on their waiting lists.

In ED programs students start their senior year ready to choose the one college they would most like to attend, and having already taken their SATs. An early applicant is allowed to make only one ED application, and it is due in the beginning or the middle of November. The college has about a month to deliberate and responds by mid-December. If the answer is no, the student has two weeks to send out regular applications to schools on his or her backup list. If the answer is yes, the process is over, because by virtue of applying early, the student has promised to attend the college if accepted. How is this enforced? Mainly through counselors, who know when a student has been admitted ED and agree not to send official transcripts to other schools.

A similar-sounding but different program is called early action, or EA. The similarity is that students' applications are due in November and they get a response by December. The difference is that the EA agreement is not binding: even after getting a yes, the student can apply to other places in the regular way and wait until May to make a choice. Six years ago Yale and Princeton switched from early action to binding early decision, and Stanford, which had previously resisted all early programs, instituted a binding ED plan. For this fall's applications Brown has switched from EA to binding ED. The remaining major colleges that still offer nonbinding EA plans include Cal Tech, the University of Chicago, Georgetown, Harvard, MIT, and Notre Dame.

Below this formal structure lies a crucial reality, which Penn is almost alone in forthrightly disclosing: students have a much better chance of being admitted if they apply early decision than if they wait to join the regular pool.

For instance, when selecting its class of 2004, which entered college last fall, Yale admitted more than a third (37 percent) of the students who applied early and less than a sixth (16 percent) of those who applied regular. The most extreme difference among major colleges was at Columbia, where 40 percent of the earlies and 14 percent of the regulars were accepted. Amherst accepted 35 percent of the earlies and 19 percent of the regulars. Hamilton College, in upstate New York, took 70 percent of the earlies and 43 percent of the regulars. At the University of Pennsylvania 47 percent of early applicants and 26 percent of regular applicants were admitted.

These comparisons obviously count for something. The chance of being lost in the shuffle was presumably less among Princeton's 1,825 ED applicants last year, of whom 31 percent (559) were accepted, than among its 11,900 regulars, of whom about 11 percent got in. But these simple comparisons make the early advantage look larger than it really is. At very selective schools like Princeton students in the ED pool have better grades and higher test scores than regular applicants, so it could be called fair and logical that a higher proportion of them get in. Harvard admits more than a quarter of its nonbinding early-action applicants and only a ninth of its regular pool. William Fitzsimmons, Harvard's director of admissions, says that standards applied to its early and regular applicants are identical: the difference in acceptance rate, he claims, comes purely from the fact that so many students with a good chance of being admitted apply early, whereas the regular pool contains a larger proportion of long shots. "We put on our 'spring hats,'" he told me recently, "and if there is someone we are absolutely sure we will admit in the spring, we make the offer in the fall. We are very comfortable with these decisions."

The real question about the ED skew is whether the prospects for any given student differ depending on when he or she applies. Last fall Christopher Avery, of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, and several colleagues produced smoking-gun evidence that they do. The authors analyzed five years' worth of admissions records from fourteen selective colleges, involving a total of 500,000 applications, and interviewed 400 college students, sixty high school seniors, and thirty-five counselors. They found that at the ED schools an early application was worth as much in the competition for admission as scoring 100 extra points on the SAT. For instance, a student with a combined SAT score of 1400 to 1490 (out of 1600) who applied early was as likely to be accepted as a regular-admission student scoring 1500 to 1600. An early student scoring 1200 to 1290 was more likely to be accepted than a regular student scoring 1300 to 1390.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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