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.