The Early Decision Racket, Redux

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

To take your mind off politics, at least politics of the national-election variety, let’s take a look back on some of the oddities of the American college-admissions process, for which millions of families are gearing up right now.

Back in 2001, the Atlantic’s September issue featured a big story I had done, called “The Early-Decision Racket.” It was about the way elite-college admissions had been transformed, and warped, through the Faustian bargain of the “early decision” system. This is the arrangement in which a student’s chance of getting into a selective college goes up, but the student’s ability to choose another college, or bargain and comparison-shop for better financial-aid deals, goes away.

(By the way: that article got a lot of attention during the first ten days of September, 2001. Then on September 11 … )

A note that just arrived is an excuse for re-posting a link to that article, and for a reminder of how distorting the whole admissions process has become. Here’s the letter:

Today, I came across your article " The Early-Decision Racket" from September 2001 and, though it took lot of patience in this twitter crazed short attention span mind to read, it might as well have been written yesterday in September 2017. Amazing that after 16 yrs, an article can still be so fresh as if time stopped.

I wanted to share a story from my family and it fits the pattern perfectly.

My niece is a senior at [a prestigious private school]. Super smart kid with 3.98/4 GPA, SAT score in 1560/1600, loaded with extra-curriculars, Mayor's youth council chairperson, community service, UN youth assembly , etc. etc.... You get the picture.

Her mom is a wealthy [professional].

I have been working with my niece to help with college admission process.   She is super crazy about [some Ivy League and East Coast schools]. Wants to get into Penn but is torn about Georgetown and its Early Action program.  Has done summer courses at Duke but doesn’t want to apply there. Is also interested in Northwestern U. [Also dealing with Tulane.]

Every word of your article was like reading my own current experience in this  " ginned up marketing game played to achieve top ranks through selectivity and yields". The ultimate game is get that spigot running and build endowment wealth….

Colleges and parents are both willing players in the game

Some of the contributing factors

(1) More students realizing that their best shot at Ivy ranked college is EA or ED and taking that chance

(2) More Asian-Americans are coming of age. Ultra-competitive kids born to very educated parents (with both having college degrees) who migrated to US in the 90s and afterwards during the technology boom.

(3) Growing economies in Asia/Americas has given middle class kids a chance to get US education. This is driving a big increase in international applications submitted.

Colleges are in the race to attract the best and the wealthiest and keep upping the game. Duke, which was missing from your article, has become a big player too in this game.

People's don't think much about growing endowments at these top ranked colleges but in the end the whole education industry has become a single minded pursuit of wealth preservation and capital growth.  If offering education is the avenue to achieve that goal, so be it.

I have met number of professors at different universities who fight for federal grants to do basic research.  They admit that without these grants, most colleges would not be able to pay to keep them and thus getting more money is imperative to self-preservation even when the research yields no tangible outcomes.

Some articles below from this year will tell you about the current state of what you wrote about in 2001