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
Early Decision seems to me to be the most "rational" part of the admissions process these days. To be able to admit precisely the kinds of students we seek from among those who have decided that Princeton is where they want to be is far more "rational" than the weeks we spend in late March making hairline decisions among terrific kids without the slightest knowledge of who among them really wants the particular opportunities provided by Princeton and who among them could care less or, worse, who among them is simply collecting trophies.

Richard Shaw, the admissions dean at Yale, defends his institution's ED policy in similar terms. Under the old system, he told me, trophy-hunting students would "collect a lot of admissions from places that were not their first choice, and would take up the space that might have gone to other students." It was fairer, he said, to reserve the institutions' scarce decision-making time for students who really wanted to attend Yale.

High school counselors, most of whom take a dim overall view of early decision (but also master its nuances in order to get the right edge for their students), admit that for some students in some circumstances it can work just right. Yet not one of the more than thirty public and private school counselors I spoke with argued that because the early system is good for particular students, or because they had learned how to work it, it is beneficial overall. On the contrary, they had three basic complaints: that it distorts the experience of being in high school; that it worsens the professional-class neurosis about college admission; and that in terms of social class it is nakedly unfair.

Early decision distorts high school mainly by foreshortening the experience. With early applications due in the fall of senior year, students know that the end of junior year is the last part of their high school record that "counts." The other dates on the college-prep calendar must also be moved up. In the past five years the Kaplan company has seen a 60 percent rise in demand for its courses in the PSAT, the warm-up for the SAT. "These kids need to get started so they can get their SATs finished by the end of their junior year," Seppy Basili, of Kaplan, says.

"With this speeded-up process there's pressure on kids to be perfect from ninth grade on," says Josh Wolman, the director of college counseling at Sidwell Friends School, in Washington, D.C. "We've got colleges saying 'Well, we don't know, he had a C in biology in ninth grade.' I wish colleges had a better understanding of what it's like to work with ninth-graders. If they think all ninth-graders can get As—that all ninth-grade boys can get As!—they're crazy."

"A hallmark of adolescence is its changeability," says Cigus Vanni, formerly an assistant dean at Swarthmore. "To say that kids should be ready a year ahead of time to make these decisions goes against everything we've learned in the past hundred years." Tom Parker, the admissions director at Amherst, oversees an ED plan but nonetheless says that too many colleges are taking too many students early: "My own fundamental belief is that eight to twelve months in a seventeen-year-old's life is a very long time. For us it's a blink of an eye. Kids may begin the year with the idea of going to a large urban university and end up very happy to come to Amherst. They do so as a result of insight, growth, challenge, and family dynamics, and we really need to allow those things to play out. An awful lot of kids are making the decision too early because they feel that they can't get in if they don't."

I spoke with students at a variety of high schools about how the college-admissions process had affected them. By the end of the process most of them were battle-hardened and blasé, and not really interested in talking about what they had been through. The answer I remember best came from a sophomore at Harvard-Westlake, Tom Newman, a curly-haired, open-faced boy. How early did students start worrying about college?

"Oh, yeah, for us as sophomores, it's here," he said. "Especially at a school like this, to a very large extent we start feeling the pressure of getting ready for college from ninth grade on. It's on our minds that tenth grade and eleventh grade count. So there's always the big stress level. They start talking to us about colleges before sophomore year starts—I think we had an orientation in late summer after our freshman year. They sat us down and said, 'This is it. The life you're going to be living for the next few years.'"

I asked if he thought he would apply early decision when his time came. "Most people are for that, to be perfectly honest. They say you have a better chance. Most of the seniors I know have done early admission, and most of the sophomores are thinking about it."

Then I asked Newman if he thought the early focus on college had helped or hurt his high school experience. He laughed. "Are you serious? Maybe for a very small percentage it might help them do better. But for the great majority, no. It makes things more stressful, more painful. You go around the school and see the kids look tired. Very few students get enough sleep. They get either too much or not enough exercise. We don't go for moderation—you can't, because the hype is so high." He was saying this not in a whiny, tortured-youth fashion but as an observer of his culture.

Candace Andrews, a college counselor at the Polytechnic School, in Pasadena, California, says that she tries not to speak to freshmen or sophomores about college at all, but the parents are always at her. "I tell the parents, 'You want your kid to go to Stanford? Then let your kid have a real Poly life. Engage here.'" In theory that's how high school, not to mention life in general, is supposed to work. But Andrews says that the pressure to get kids on the college chute has become too great. (She is leaving the counseling business to enter a more relaxed field—nuclear-weapons control.)

At the schools I visited—strong suburban public schools and renowned private schools—half of all seniors, on average, applied under some early plan. Of those, typically half applied under binding early-decision plans, and half under nonbinding early action. All the counselors I spoke with said that if it were up to the parents alone, the overall total would be much higher. This was true even at Scarsdale High, in New York, where 70 percent of the seniors applied under some early program. "They're scared," Cigus Vanni says, referring mainly to parents. "The sense is that New York, say, has a lot of high-scoring, high-achieving kids, and if they wait for the regular pool, the students will eliminate one another." At Harvard-Westlake, Edward Hu and his colleagues keep the early proportion to 50 percent by insisting that students and parents work through a checklist. Sample question: "Have you visited the college that you like more than any other college? Yes or No. If Yes, continue. If No, stop. You are not applying early."

This question alone suggests the most glaring defect of the early programs: how much they are biased toward privileged students. It makes perfect sense that students should see a college before making a binding commitment to attend. A school like Harvard-Westlake, on the West Coast, can assume that its students will have made the East Coast college tour before their senior year. Counselors at the Los Angeles public schools cannot—that is, if they even have a moment to think about which of their students should apply early. At the typical private school or prosperous suburban public high school one counselor may serve forty to sixty students. At Redlands High, the public high school I attended in southern California, each counselor is responsible for several hundred students. Rich and poor students alike may be free to benefit from today's ED racket—but only the rich are likely to have heard of it.

"You can always argue for taking one more kid in the early stage," Jonathan Reider says, referring to his time as an admissions officer at Stanford. "There's always room to go from four hundred and fifty to four fifty-one. So you'd end up with four eighty. One year we went over five hundred. But you get to March, and you generally know what the yield on the regular kids will be, and you simply can't take another kid." Students who haven't heard of early decision are shouldered out.

Others who are left out are those whose parents wonder how they're going to pay for college, which is to say average Americans. A student who applies under the regular system can compare loans, grants, and work-study offers from a variety of schools. A student who is accepted early decision has to take whatever aid the college offers. Colleges swear that in making need-based aid calculations they don't discriminate against early applicants. That may well be true at the richest two or three schools. But even when that is the case, a student with only one offer on the table cannot know what might have been available elsewhere.

Charles Deacon, of Georgetown, says, "A cynical view is that early decision is a programmatic way of rationing your financial aid. First, the ED pool is more affluent, so you spend less money"—that is, give less need-based aid—"enrolling your class. And then there is absolutely no need to compete on financial packages. I am dealing with a very attractive candidate right now, admitted in our nonbinding program, who is comparing our aid package with"—and here he named a famous East Coast school that has a binding early-decision plan. That school, he said, had just come up with an offer that was all grant, no loan. "If she had applied there early decision, they wouldn't have had to do that."

"The whole early-decision thing is so preposterous, transparent, and demeaning to the profession that it is bound to go bust," says Tom Parker, of Amherst. "I can't think of one secondary school counselor who sees the benefit of the program."

The Rules of the Game—How to Work Them and How to Reform Them

For students now entering their senior year in high school, and for their parents, changing the ED system is a moot point. The system exists, and it rewards those who are willing to play the game. The main strategy is this: a student who is in the right position to make an early commitment has every reason to do so.

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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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