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

For a student, being in that position means being absolutely certain by the start of the senior year that Wesleyan or Bates or Columbia is the place one wants to attend, and that there will be no "buyer's remorse" later in the year when classmates get four or five offers to choose from. It means having strong grades and SAT scores by the end of junior year and not thinking that one's record needs to be rounded off or enriched by senior-year performance. It means that one's family has enough money to be unaffected by the possibility of competitive financial offers. It means that one has decided not to apply for the extraordinary full-tuition "merit" scholarships—including the Trustee Scholar program at the University of Southern California and the Morehead scholarships at the University of North Carolina—that are increasingly being used to attract talented students to less selective schools. It means that one is emotionally prepared to deal with a rejection if necessary and then to rush regular applications into the mail right away.

Anyone so positioned should go right ahead. Those who aren't should take their time. There are, of course, nuances. Students hoping for but not confident of Princeton or Stanford in the regular cycle, for instance, should apply early to Georgetown—what is there to lose? Those thinking seriously of Harvard might as well apply early: there is no evidence that it's easier to get in then, but with most of the class being admitted early, it's a way to resolve uncertainties ahead of time. Anyone hoping to use legacy preference or athletic talent for an extra edge should apply early.

Those are some of the ways to work the system. What about changing it? One approach would be simple reform—accepting the inevitability of ED programs but trying to modify them so as to reduce the attendant pressure and paranoia. For instance, colleges could agree to abandon the practice sometimes called sophomore search, whereby the Educational Testing Service sells mailing lists of high school sophomores to colleges so that the schools can begin their marketing mailings in the junior year. High school counselors could agitate for a commitment from colleges that financial-aid offers would be consistent for early and regular applicants; the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) could carefully monitor trends to see that colleges honored the pledge. High schools and colleges alike could agree to report either more or less data than they currently do.

If more, then colleges would carefully distinguish between early and regular applicants when reporting their selectivity and yield rates. This would reduce the pressure to take more early applicants in order to improve statistics. U.S. News should ask for, and separately report, early and regular totals for selectivity and yield. If a school refuses to provide a breakdown, the magazine should omit selectivity and yield from the school's listing.

If less, then colleges could reduce the detailed information they release about admissions trends. Fred Hargadon, of Princeton, says he dreams of returning to the days when not even students were informed of their SAT scores and when colleges didn't advertise the median test scores of their entering classes. Barbara Leifer-Sarullo and Marjorie Jacobs, of Scarsdale High, have for years declined to give local papers lists of the colleges Scarsdale graduates will be attending. "If we did that," Leifer-Sarullo says, "the school next door would be under that much more pressure about its graduates—and school results are what keep up real-estate prices." Scarsdale's strong reputation means that it can afford not to be on lists of schools with the most Ivy League admissions.

To begin thinking about proposals for reform is to realize both how difficult the changes would be to implement and how indirect their effects might be. One such proposal could be called the "anti-trophy-hunting rule." At Scarsdale High students who have been accepted to very selective colleges under early action may submit at most one other application during the regular cycle. This avoids swamping the system in general and crowding out other applicants from the same secondary school. (In practice it largely keeps people with an early acceptance at Harvard from clogging the system at Princeton, Yale, and Stanford.) Edward Hu, of Harvard-Westlake, proposes another idea. He says that no student should apply to college until after high school graduation, with the expectation that most would spend the next year working, traveling, or volunteering. Great idea—good luck!

Two other proposals sound sensible but also indicate the limits of reform. One is that colleges voluntarily do what Stanford does now and hold early admissions to no more than 25 percent of the incoming class. "I really would find it problematic to give out more than a quarter of our admissions decisions early," Robin Mamlet, the admissions dean at Stanford, says, voicing a view different from Hargadon's. "Certainly I feel that when you pass a third, you limit your ability to maneuver as an institution, and it's not healthy on a national level." Some counselors told me they support such a ceiling because they support anything that will reduce the volume of early acceptances. Others think a widely accepted ceiling could actually make things worse, by enforcing the idea that early admission is a sign of super-elite status.

The other proposal is that Harvard be pressured to adopt a binding ED program. The logic here is that Harvard's current nonbinding program is de facto binding, and the fiction that it's not encourages trophy-hunting students to waste the time of admissions officers at half a dozen other schools. But Harvard has no intention of making this change.

The problem with reform, then, is that most measures would have a very limited effect, and those whose effect might be greater—for instance, a year's delay—are unlikely to be taken. This leads many counselors to dream about a different approach: a basic assault on the current college-admissions mania.

Immediate Suspension

Today's professional-class madness about college involves the linked ideas that colleges are desirable to the extent that they are hard to get into; that high schools are valuable to the extent that they get students into those desirable colleges; and that being accepted or rejected from a "good" college is the most consequential fact about one's education.

Viewed from afar—or from close up, by people working in high schools—every part of this outlook is twisted. The U.S. higher-education network is remarkable precisely for how many people it accommodates, how many different avenues it opens, how many second chances it offers, and how thoroughly it is not the last word on success or failure.

Obviously there are name and network payoffs from attending the "best" colleges and graduate schools. Four of the nine justices on the current Supreme Court have undergraduate degrees from Stanford. The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania has a powerful network in finance, the Harvard Crimson in journalism, the USC film school in Hollywood, Stanford's computer-science department in Silicon Valley, The Dartmouth Review among conservative writers, and so on.

But the positive effects of these networks are certainly far less than the negative effects of not attending the University of Tokyo in Japan or one of the grandes écoles in France. The longer a field is exposed to a continuing market test—of economic profit, of political approval, of performance or innovation—the less academic credentials of any sort seem to matter. The four richest people in America, all of whom made rather than inherited their wealth, are a dropout from Harvard, a dropout from the University of Illinois, a dropout from Washington State University, and a graduate of the University of Nebraska. American Presidents of the past half century have included two from Yale; two from the service academies; one each from Harvard, Southwest Texas State, Whittier, Michigan, Eureka, and Georgetown; and one (Harry Truman) with no college degree. Members of Congress are, on average, unusually wealthy but not from elite-college backgrounds. Rosters of Nobel laureates or top leaders in any industrial field demonstrate that admission to a selective school is not necessary for success. Twenty-fifth-anniversary alumni reports from Harvard, Yale, or Princeton make clear that a degree from one of the Big Three is not sufficient for success or wealth or happiness. A counselor at Scarsdale High asks students to research and write about three to five people they consider genuinely successful—and then stresses to the students how little connection each success has to college background.

Other things being equal, a degree from a better-known college is a plus—as are good looks, white skin, athletic skill, being raised in an intact family, and other factors that skew the starting line in life. But more than these other variables, the importance of one's college background diminishes rapidly through adulthood: it matters most for one's first job and steadily less thereafter. The old grad who parades his college background does so because that's when he peaked in life. Yes, American parents wanting to give their child a fighting chance should make sure that he or she has some sort of college degree. The wonder is that getting through the admissions gate at a name-brand college should have come to seem the fundamental point of upper-middle-class child-rearing.

The drive to get children into one of the most selective schools may in fact be economically irrational if parents think that the money they spend on private school tuition will pay off in higher future earnings for those children. For years scholars have attempted to measure the economic impact of attending a selective college versus a less selective one. Isolating that impact has been difficult, because students who go to selective schools tend to have many other things working in their favor. But in a widely quoted 1999 working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research, Stacy Berg Dale and Alan B. Krueger found that the economic benefit of attending a more selective school was negligible. (To be specific, they compared a group of students who had enrolled in the most-selective schools that admitted them with another group that had been admitted to similar schools but decided to enroll in less-selective ones. The selectivity of a school made no significant difference in the students' later earnings.) The same study found some payoff to attending expensive schools. But nearly all private colleges, selective or not, cost much more than nearly all public institutions—and there is only a vague connection between out-of-pocket expense for tuition and housing and perceived selectivity.

Presented by

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.
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.


A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?


In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.


What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.


Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.



More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In