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

That is how Penn used an aggressive early-decision policy to drive up its rankings—and not just Penn. Swarthmore's yield for regular applicants, the so-called open-market yield rate, is 30 percent. Because of its binding ED program it can report an overall yield of 40 percent. Amherst has a 34 percent open-market yield, but it can report a 42 percent yield because of binding ED. For Columbia the percentages are 41 and 58, for Yale 55 and 66.

The long-term financial viability of a college can be influenced simply by its reported yield. "I was flabbergasted when we were having our college bonds evaluated by Moody's and S&P," Bruce Poch, of Pomona, told me. "These bond raters were obsessing about our yield! They were chastising me because Pomona's yield was not as high as Williams's and Amherst's, because they took more of their class early. We explained that our regular-decision yield was quite high, and finally got a triple-A bond rating. Obviously there were other considerations, but this saved the college millions in interest." One admissions dean at a selective school proudly told me that his school's yield had risen from 50 to 60 percent in just three years. He didn't add what his college's own figures show: the yield for regular admissions had been steady in that time. The difference came from the school's having taken more students early.

The average SAT score of the admitted class is another important element in ranking. The admissions office can affect this directly, by giving SAT scores extra weight in its decisions—and surprising new evidence suggests that many offices are doing so. The main professional organization in this field, the National Association for College Admission Counseling, reported last February that the one factor that had become more important in admissions decisions over the past decade was SAT scores. "College presidents see these U.S. News rankings," Mark Davis, a college counselor at Phillips Exeter Academy, told me recently, "and they tell the deans of admission, 'Keep those SAT scores up! Not because we think they're that relevant but because we don't want to slip in the rankings.'"

The most intriguing twist on the SAT emphasis is applied at Georgetown, one of a handful of schools still offering nonbinding early action. Whereas Harvard knows that nearly all the students admitted EA will enroll, Georgetown knows that most of the academically strongest candidates it admits early will end up at Yale or Stanford if they get in. Georgetown sticks with EA in part because Charles Deacon, its dean of admissions, is a prominent critic of the increased use of binding programs and the sense of panic and scarcity they create among students. (My wife, Deborah, worked for him in Georgetown's admissions office for two years.) But Georgetown also benefits from the fact that its nonbinding program attracts applications from some talented students who start out considering the university a "safety school" but end up deciding to enroll. Because colleges often highlight the average SAT scores of the students they admit, not just the ones who enroll, a policy like Georgetown's can make a school look better.

The Three Ages of Early Decision

Today's ED programs are relics of an entirely different era in academic history—actually, two eras. The first rough precursors of today's early system appeared in the 1950s, when Harvard, Yale, and Princeton applied what was known as the ABC system. Their admissions officers would visit Exeter, Groton, Andover, and the other traditional feeder schools. They would chat with students, talk with counselors, and look at transcripts, and then issue advisory A, B, or C ratings to the students. A was a likely admission, B was possible, C was unlikely. "It was a system that gave students from certain backgrounds a lot of access," Karl Furstenberg says. "It reflected the privileged relationships that existed."

By the late 1950s smaller New England colleges had come up with the first early-decision plans, as a way to make inroads with these same students. Amherst, Bowdoin, Dartmouth, Wesleyan, and Williams, allied at the time as "the Pentagonals," offered what has become the familiar bargain: better odds on admission in return for a binding commitment to attend. "What's interesting is that from the start competitive considerations among colleges seem to have been the driving force," Karl Furstenberg, of Dartmouth, says. Soon after, other colleges began to adopt early decision.

The next distinct phase came during the baby bust of the 1980s, when binding commitments were a way to fill dormitory beds. With fewer students applying each year, even proud, strong schools found themselves digging deep into their waiting lists to fill their freshman classes. Smaller, weaker colleges could barely make their numbers and pay their bills—no matter how deep they dug. "It's not shameful to go to the waiting list, but you don't want to make yourself look needy," says Jonathan Reider, formerly of Stanford. "For an institution like Stanford, taking sixty would be a lot."

During the baby bust news swept through the small-college ranks that Swarthmore had not been able to fill its class without nearly using up its waiting list. "I think that got people really worried," says Edward Hu, who was then an admissions officer at Occidental College and is now a counselor at the Harvard-Westlake school. "If Swarthmore was having these problems ..." In the early 1990s the main computer in Brown's admissions office broke down: the office had been using a three-digit code for places on the waiting list, and anxious admissions officers were packing so many names onto the list that they had exceeded the 999-name limit in the database system.

In the mid-1990s Baby Boomers' children began applying to college, and the long years of prosperity expanded the pool of people willing and able to pay tuition for prep schools and private colleges. More bodies and more money were coming into the college system at just the moment when American colleges were going through their version of economic globalization. Fred Hargadon, formerly the dean of admissions at Stanford and now in the same position at Princeton, says, "A generation ago most students stayed within two hundred miles of their home town when looking at colleges." Now, in education as in other fields, customers from around the country and the world were bidding for the same limited resources.

The economists Robert Frank, of Cornell, and Philip Cook, of Duke, have called this the "winner take all" phenomenon, in that it multiplies the rewards for those at the top of the pyramid and puts new pressure on those at the bottom. Frank has used the example of the market for opera. A century ago dozens of cities had their own opera houses, providing work for hundreds of singers. Now everyone buys CD recordings of the same few world-famous sopranos. Similar effects are visible in the college market. A worldwide sense that U.S. higher education was pre-eminent, and a growing perception within America that a clear hierarchy of "best" colleges existed, made top schools relatively more attractive than they had been before. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton became more sought after relative to other very selective schools. Harvard became clearly the first among equals, on the basis of the selectivity and yield statistics that are stressed in rankings. Harvard's open-market yield is now above 60 percent, which when combined with the near 90 percent yield from its nonbinding early-action program gives Harvard an overall yield of 79 percent. Few colleges have an open-market yield of even 50 percent.

Meanwhile, schools less well known or well positioned were applying a version of Penn's strategy, deliberately using the early option to improve their numbers and allure. "In general it's the smaller liberal-arts colleges that need to encourage applications, so that they'll remain 'selective,'" says John Katzman, the head of The Princeton Review. Katzman says that it's unfair to name any schools that pursue this strategy, because "it's like naming people who jaywalk in New York." But the counselors I spoke with volunteered some examples of smaller, mainly private schools that had placed increasing emphasis on early plans to lock up their freshman class. These included Brandeis, Connecticut College, Emory, Tufts, Washington University in St. Louis, and Wesleyan. The Claremont Colleges, in southern California, were often cited as an exception to the trend.

Tulane is one of several schools that have been inventive with early plans. It now offers both early-action and early-decision plans. Last year it sent a mailing to all students in Louisiana and to high-scoring students from across the country. The mailing included admissions forms already filled out with basic data about each student, which Tulane had bought from the Educational Testing Service and the College Board. Admissions fees were waived for students who used the form. Because of the new forms and other factors that made Tulane more attractive, applications went up by 30 percent. It therefore became more "selective."

The High Road

There is a case to be made for the rise of early-decision programs, and Fred Hargadon enjoys making it. Hargadon resisted early programs of any sort during the fifteen years he was the admissions director at Stanford; six years ago he oversaw Princeton's switch to a binding ED plan. He takes great and eloquent offense at the idea that admissions policies should be described as a matter of power politics among colleges rather than as efforts to find the best match of student and school. When I met with him at Princeton recently, I mentioned that high school counselors often describe the increase in early programs as an "arms race" in which no one can afford to back down. That night I got a lengthy e-mail from him saying that the analogy reminded him of "how narrow and shallow are the frames of reference often used by people in order to give an immediate response or reaction to one or another happening in higher education."

Hargadon's argument for a binding ED policy is in part positive: ED gives an admissions office the best chance to assemble some of the diverse talents, range of backgrounds, and personalities necessary to make up a well-rounded class. "If we need a quarterback for the football team and we've admitted two of them early, we don't need to take a third in the spring," he says. "If you're doing it in the spring, you have no idea who's actually going to show up." And his case is in part negative, or at least defensive. When it had a nonbinding early plan, Princeton could end up wasting its decision-making time and, worse, its scarce admission slots on students who were hoping to get into Yale or Harvard. "To put it as bluntly as I can," Hargadon said in a long note he had prepared before our talk,

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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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