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

The equivalent of a 100-point increase in SAT scores makes an enormous difference in an applicant's chances, especially for a mid-1400s candidate. Indeed, the difference is so important as to be a highly salable commodity. A gain of roughly 100 points is what The Princeton Review guarantees students who invest $500 and up in its test-prep courses. The Avery study's findings were the more striking because what admissions officers refer to as "hooked" applicants were excluded from the study. These are students given special consideration, and therefore likely to be admitted despite lower scores, because of "legacy" factors (alumni parents or other relatives, plus past or potential donations from the family), specific athletic recruiting, or affirmative action.

A counselor at a private school that has long sent many of its graduates to Penn showed me a list of the students from that school who had applied to Penn last year. The students were listed in order of their high school grade-point average—usually the strongest single factor in college admissions—with indications of whether they had applied early or regular and whether they had been accepted or not. Some students far down in the class who applied early were accepted; some students thirty or forty places above them in class rank who applied regular were denied. The counselor did not stop to calculate exactly how much an early decision was "worth" in terms of grade-point average, but it clearly made a difference.

What's in It for the Colleges?

The more selective the college, the harder it is for outsiders to determine why any particular student was or was not accepted. Were too many kids applying from the same school? (At most colleges each admissions officer is responsible for screening applications from a certain group of schools: the advantage is that the officers become very sophisticated about the strengths of each school, and the disadvantage is that they inevitably compare each school's applicants with one another and send only the relatively strongest along.) Was the college recruiting for a certain athletic or musical skill? Was this boy admitted because of a legacy preference? Would that girl have gotten in if her parents had been more consistent donors?

When pressed for explanations, admissions officers usually avoid discussing specific cases and talk instead about the varied interests they must try to balance in "crafting" each freshman class. But under the unusually candid Lee Stetson, Penn has exposed some of the inner workings of the black box that is the admissions process. "We have had a policy in place for close to thirty years that legacy applications are given special consideration only during early decision," Stetson told me last spring. The reasoning, he explained, is that if a legacy candidate is not sure enough about coming to Penn to apply ED, then Penn has no real stake in offering preferential consideration later on. "Years ago many children of alums were not viewing Penn as their first choice, so they didn't apply early," he said. "We said we were willing to give them a measure of preference, but only if they were serious about coming." It made sense, he added, for Penn to extend the policy to applicants in general: if they are extra serious about Penn, Penn will make an extra effort for them. "We've been very direct about it," Stetson told me. "Everybody likes to be loved, and we're no exception. Everybody likes to see a sign of commitment, and it helps in the selection process." Bruce Poch, the admissions director at Pomona College, in California, is generally a critic of an overemphasis on early plans, but he agrees that they can help morale. "It's worth something to the institution to enroll kids who view the college as their first choice," he says. "Fewer people are whining about transferring from Day One. They turn out to be a lot of the campus leaders." This was part of Penn's strategy in pushing its binding ED plan. "I would say that these days eighty percent of our students view Penn as their first choice," Lee Stetson concluded. "You can't overstate what that does for the mood of the campus."

It does something else as well, which is understood by every college administrator in the country but by very few parents or students. The more freshmen a college admits under a binding ED plan, the fewer acceptances it needs from the regular pool to fill its class—and the better it will look statistically. That statistical improvement can have significant consequences.

The natural tendency to esteem what is rare—a place in, say, an Ivy League freshman class—has been dramatically reinforced by the growth of journalistic rankings of colleges. The U.S. News list ranks national universities from 1 through 50, national liberal-arts colleges from 1 through 50, and other institutions in other ways. It remains the best known of the rankings, but many other publications now provide similar features. (I was the editor of U.S. News from 1996 to 1998.)

College administrators dispute both the technical basis on which these rankings are compiled and the larger idea that institutions with very different purposes can be considered better or worse than one another. Cal Tech, for example, is so different from Yale that whether it is better or worse depends on an individual student's aims. But everyone involved with college admissions and administration recognizes that the rankings have enormous impact. They affect the number of students who apply to a school, donations from alumni, pride and satisfaction among students and faculty members, and even the terms on which colleges can borrow money in the financial markets. Like getting to the Final Four in college basketball or winning a prominent post-season football game, moving up in the college rankings makes everything easier for a college's administrators.

When the U.S. News rankings began, they were based purely on a reputational survey, similar to polls of coaches for college-football standings: college administrators were asked to list the institutions they considered best, and from these figures U.S. News compiled its list. Year by year U.S. News added more variables to its ranking formula, such as financial resources, graduation rate, and student-faculty ratio. Most of these variables are difficult for a college to change over the short term. Indeed, the only ones guaranteed to change year by year are those involving the admissions office: the number of students who apply, the proportion who are accepted, the SAT scores of those who are admitted, and the proportion of those accepted who ultimately enroll. "Institutions of higher education are much more competitive with each other on a whole variety of measures than you would think," says Karl Furstenberg, the dean of admissions at Dartmouth. "Because it is an annual activity, admissions is one aspect of university life where you can have a more immediate impact on the character of an institution than you can in the long-term process of building academic programs."

The statistical measures that matter here are a college's selectivity and its yield. They are related, and both are taken as indicators of a school's desirability. Selectivity measures how hard a school is to get into. A school that accepts one applicant out of four, like the University of California at Berkeley, is more selective than one that accepts two out of three, like UC Davis. To the extent that college admission is seen as a trophy, the more applicants a given college rejects, the happier those it accepts—and their parents—will be.

A college's yield is the proportion of students offered admission who actually attend. If selectivity measures how frequently a college rejects students, yield measures how frequently students accept a college. In practice yield measures "takeaways"; if Georgetown gets a student who was also admitted to Duke, Boston College, and Northwestern, it scores a takeaway from each of the other schools. The higher the yield and the larger the number of takeaways, the more desirable the school is thought to be. "In a typical year Stanford would let in twenty-five hundred kids to get a class of fifteen hundred," says Jonathan Reider, a former admissions officer at Stanford who is now the college-admissions director at University High School, a private school in San Francisco. "One thousand would say no. Of them, about four hundred went to Harvard, a hundred and fifty to Yale and Princeton each—that's 700 right there. Fifty to Berkeley, fifty to UCLA. For a number of years we looked at that Harvard takeaway number and wanted it to go down, but it never did."

It is important to mention a reality check here, which is that American colleges as a whole are grossly unselective. Of the country's 3,000-plus colleges, all but about a hundred take most of the students who apply. Nonetheless, anxiety about admission to the remaining schools affects a significant part of upper-level American society. Without it the test-prep industry, private schools, and suburban housing patterns would all be very different.

From a college's point of view, the most important fact about early decision is that it provides a way to improve a college's selectivity and yield simultaneously, and therefore to move the school up on national-ranking charts. It will take a few paragraphs' worth of figures to explain how colleges weigh early and regular applicants and who therefore does or does not get in at which point.

Suppose a college needs to enroll 2,000 students in its incoming class. Suppose it receives roughly 12,000 applications each year in the regular admissions cycle—a realistic estimate for a prestigious, selective school. Suppose, finally, that its normal yield for students admitted in the regular cycle is 33 percent—that is, for each three it accepts, one will enroll. This, too, is a realistic figure for most top-tier schools. So to end up with 2,000 freshmen on registration day, a college relying purely on a regular admissions program would send "We are pleased to announce" letters to 6,000 applicants and hope that the usual 33 percent decided to enroll. A regular-only admissions policy would thus mean that the college's selectivity rate—6,000 acceptances for 12,000 applicants—was an unselective-sounding 50 percent.

Now suppose that the college introduces an early-decision plan and admits 500 applicants, a quarter of the class, that way. Suddenly its statistics improve. It is very likely to receive at least as many total applications as before—say, 1,000 in the ED program and 11,000 regulars. But now it will have to send out only 5,000 acceptance letters—500 earlies plus 4,500 to bring in 1,500 regular students. Therefore its selectivity will improve to 42 percent from the previous 50, and its yield will be 40 percent rather than the original 33, because all those admitted early will be obliged to enroll.

Finally, suppose that the college decides to admit fully half the class early, as some selective colleges already do. It will need to send out only 4,000 offers to get 2,000 students. Its selectivity will become an impressive 33 percent and its overall yield will be 50 percent. With no change in faculty, course offerings, endowment, or characteristics of the entering class, the college will have risen noticeably in national rankings.

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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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