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

So although the pressure for places in the Ivy League and the exclusive liberal-arts colleges does not grow purely from economic rationality, it obviously has economic consequences. Preparing students for SATs and related tests is the basis of The Princeton Review's and Kaplan's success. Private schools remain crowded because so many parents view them more as valuable conduits to selective colleges than as valuable educational experiences.

Colleges, says Mark Davis, of Exeter, have achieved a miracle of marketing: "The miracle of scarcity. By making themselves harder to get into, they have made themselves 'better' in the public eye." Davis readily admits that elite prep schools like his benefit from this outlook. Many other things, too, are valued largely because they are scarce, but admission to an elite college is different from, say, beachfront property or original artwork, because it can't be bought directly. Thus the intensity with which parents approach the indirect factors that make admission more likely: prep schools, private tutoring for admissions tests, extensive travel, "interesting" summer experiences.

There is one other hope for dealing with the early-decision problem—a step significant enough to make a real difference, but sufficiently contained to happen in less than geologic time: adopting what might be called the Joe Allen Memorial Policy, suspending early programs of all sorts for the indefinite future.

Joseph P. Allen, a boyish-looking man then in his mid-forties, became the director of admissions at the University of Southern California in 1993, moving from the same job at UC Santa Cruz. USC, like Penn, was a private institution with an unenviable reputation, because of its location in a dicey part of Los Angeles and because it was seen as a safety school for rich but unmotivated students. Like Penn, USC waged an aggressive campaign to improve its image. Allen was the most visible public ambassador of the drive, traveling the country to recruit talented students, urging the creation of new honors programs, and raising money for scholarships that brought a wider racial diversity to what had been a mainly white student body. By the late 1990s USC had nine times as many applicants as places; the average SAT score of incoming freshman classes had risen by 300 points; and the university had moved up in the U.S. News rankings.

Allen, who had spent a year in federal prison in the early 1970s for refusing the draft for Vietnam, considered early programs economically unfair, and resisted using them as part of USC's recruiting drive. But as he watched their influence spread, he began to fear that no institution could avoid them in the long run. At a meeting of the College Board in February, 1998, he stood up and offered a "modest proposal." For years, he said, he had heard colleagues worry about the effects of early-decision programs. Many people thought that students had to make up their minds far too early. All of them realized that binding ED programs allowed schools to feign a level of selectivity they don't really have. But individual schools felt powerless to do anything about it. "We'd give it up—if everyone else did," Allen had often heard. Therefore, he suggested, why didn't everyone give up early programs altogether? Why not just declare a moratorium? He proposed a three-year ban on all ED and EA programs, during which time colleges and high schools would carefully observe the effects.

At that meeting some people supported the plan and others said it was impractical. Over the next few years Allen brought up the idea whenever his colleagues began complaining about the effects of ED programs. Then, in March of this year, Allen suffered a stroke while greeting a group of prospective USC students. He was fifty-three years old and apparently vigorous, but he died two weeks later.

Candace Andrews, of the Polytechnic School, who had known and liked Allen, told me, "In Joe Allen's memory we should give his proposal a try. No one wants to be the first one to take the step, so everyone needs to step back together." She tossed off this idea casually in conversation, but it actually seems more promising than any of the other reform plans. Not every college would agree to it, of course. Fortunately, though, the same hierarchy that skews the system could make a difference here. If the right few colleges agreed, that could be enough. When I asked high school counselors how many colleges it would take to change early programs by agreeing to a moratorium, their answers varied. A few thought that Harvard by itself was enough. "It's all about Harvard, it really is," Mark Davis, of Exeter, told me. "If they didn't have an early program, then others would feel comfortable following suit." Harvard's officials claim that no one college can afford to go it alone. "You've got to understand, the Ivy League is so hypercompetitive that I've heard our faculty members compare it to a loose federation of pirates," William Fitzsimmons says. "If we gave it up, other institutions inside and outside the Ivy League would carve up our class, and our faculty would carve us up." Tom Parker, of Amherst, says, "The places that would have to change are Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Penn. Those are the four. If they were to drastically reduce the percentage they take early, this would all change in a heartbeat." Joanna Schultz, the director of college counseling at The Ellis School, a private school for girls in Pittsburgh, says, "It might take the Ivy League. If those eight colleges made a decision, others at that level would have to follow." Other counselors and admissions officers had various ideas about the schools necessary to make the difference: Stanford, the University of Chicago, Swarthmore, Amherst, Johns Hopkins, Georgetown, Rice.

But whatever the difference in details, everyone I spoke with seemed sure that some small group of elite colleges could change the system. And almost all the high school counselors thought that high school students as a whole would be much better off, even if some of their own students would no longer have the inside track.

So here is my proposal: Take the ten most selective national universities and have them agree to conduct only regular admissions programs for the next five years. No early decision, no early action. Based on percentages of applicants who are admitted (early and regular combined), those ten are Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Stanford, Yale, Brown, Cal Tech, MIT, Dartmouth, and Georgetown. Collectively their image is secure enough that in the years it might take others to go along, they needn't worry about seeing their classes carved up from below. The desire to emulate them is great enough that other schools could eventually be either shamed or flattered into adopting their policy. These ten are all private schools, so no cumbersome delay would arise from the need for state approval. (The next ten most selective, which include some public universities, are the University of Pennsylvania, Rice, the University of California at Berkeley, Duke, the University of California at Los Angeles, New York University, Northwestern, Tufts, Cornell, and Johns Hopkins.)

Five years would be long enough to move today's eighth-graders all the way through high school under the expectation of a regular admissions cycle, and then to see how their experience differed. If most of today's high school counselors are right, early plans would soon be clearly seen for what they have become: a crutch for college administrations, and an unfortunate strategy for lower-ranked schools to make themselves look better. If after five years schools for some reason missed the early system, they could return to it with a clearer sense of why they were doing so.

"In an ideal world we would do away with all early programs," Fitzsimmons said when I asked him about the right long-term direction for admissions systems. "We'd go back to the days when everyone could look at all their options over the senior year. Students, parents, and high schools would be very grateful. Philosophically and in every other way it would be so much better if we all could make the change."

Because of Harvard's position in today's college pyramid, Fitzsimmons is the most influential person in American college admissions. His "ideal world" is significant news. What holds him back is the need to know that other schools will lower their guns if he lowers his. Are college students wondering what to protest next? The out-of-control ED system is my nominee. Today's students, who survived this distorted game, could do their younger brothers and sisters an enormous favor by pressuring those ten schools to do what they already know is right.

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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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