More on politics & society from The Atlantic's archive.

More on education from The Atlantic's archive.

More Flashbacks from The Atlantic's archive.

From the archives:

"Confessions of a Prep School College Counselor" (September 2001)
"I had no idea what I was in for"—no idea that confident students and loving parents would turn into complete neurotics. By Caitlin Flanagan

"The Organization Kid" (April 2001)
The young men and women of America's future elite work their laptops to the bone, rarely question authority, and happily accept their positions at the top of the heap as part of the natural order of life. By David Brooks

"The Marketing of the Colleges" (October 1979)
As enrollments dwindle and competition for tuition-paying students intensifies, more and more colleges and universities are resorting to hard-sell strategies which in some cases impinge upon the traditional standards and canons of higher education. By Edward B. Fiske

From Atlantic Unbound:

Fallows@Large: "Inside Admissions" (September 25, 2002)
A dialogue between James Fallows and Jacques Steinberg, the author of The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College.

Flashbacks: "The Old College Try" (August 21, 2001)
Who gets in, and why? Atlantic articles from 1892 to the present consider the art, the science, and the gamesmanship of college admissions.

Interviews: "The Myth of Meritocracy" (October 7, 1999)
In his new book, The Big Test, Nicholas Lemann argues that the structure of educational opportunity in America is inherently flawed and must be rebuilt.

"The Early-Decision Racket" Redux

November 20, 2002
hose gratifying occasions when it becomes clear that an article has had a directly observable impact on the readers and institutions it was intended to reach are rare enough that they seem worthy of follow-up mention. One such instance occurred earlier this month, when two major universities announced that they are making changes to their college-admissions procedures—changes that in part reflect, according to admissions deans at both schools, the influence of an Atlantic cover story by James Fallows that appeared in September of last year.

In "The Early-Decision Racket" (September 2001), Fallows took a close look at how the widely employed college-admissions program known as "early decision" affects students, colleges, and the college-admissions process as a whole, and argued strongly in favor of its discontinuation.

Whereas the majority of students apply to schools in the winter and choose among their options in the spring, the early-decision program enables students to apply early to one school and get the whole process over with in the fall—assuming they are accepted. Colleges employ early decision, Fallows explained in his article, not as a service to students, but as a means of artificially improving their statistics in such annual college-ranking guides as U.S. News & World Report's "America's Best Colleges." After all, anyone who gets admitted to a school through the early-decision program is obliged to enroll. And because the college-rankings system places great emphasis on what percentage of those admitted to a given school end up deciding to attend, schools that admit as many students as possible through early decision come out looking extremely desirable. This in turn means that it is in most cases actually easier to get into a school by applying early than through the regular admissions process. And because students know this, many of them often end up applying early simply for the sake of boosting their odds of getting in—not because they've thought things through carefully and are certain about where they want to go.

The pressure to apply early, Fallows noted, can also make the entire high school experience unduly stressful: impressive grades and extracurriculars matter far sooner for early applicants than for those who can devote much of their senior year to impressing colleges.

One of the most insidious drawbacks of the early-decision system, Fallows argued, is the fact that it favors the wealthy. It is usually only those from status-oriented families and high schools, he pointed out, who have studied up enough on the intricacies of the admissions process to know about the early-decision option and the fact that it improves chances of admission. Moreover, students in need of financial aid are usually best advised not to apply early anyway because, if accepted, they would have no competing financial aid packages to choose from—and schools know they can get away with offering comparatively modest aid packages to early applicants because, unlike regular applicants, there's no danger of their being lured away by other schools offering more.

Though Fallows conceded that the early-decision program can make the final year of high school somewhat less stressful for the small percentage of students who have their hearts set on a particular school, don't need financial aid, and manage to get in early, he felt that the fact that it puts just about everyone else at a disadvantage makes it on balance an unjustifiable institution. For this reason, he argued, "tomorrow's students should hope that the increasingly obvious drawbacks of the system will lead to its elimination."

Not content merely to hope for the system's demise, he concluded his article with a proposed plan whereby early decision's elimination might become a reality. If the ten most selective universities (he nominated Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Stanford, Yale, Brown, Cal Tech, MIT, Dartmouth, and Georgetown) were to suspend their early-admissions programs for an agreed-upon period of time, he suggested, then other schools might follow suit.
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.
ast January, four months after Fallows's article hit the newsstands, Yale's president, Richard Levin, disclosed that the university planned to reevaluate its early-decision policy. And this month, slightly less than a year after Levin's initial announcement, both Yale and Stanford declared that they will eliminate their early-decision programs beginning next year.

These announcements, of course, don't approach the scope of change Fallows had hoped for: Yale and Stanford are not eliminating their early-admissions programs altogether—they are merely switching from binding early-decision programs to non-binding early-action programs (whereby students who are admitted early remain free to apply to other schools), and Yale and Stanford are just two schools out of Fallows's proposed ten. But for both schools this move represents a bold step. By demonstrating that, for the sake of students, they are willing to give up the advantages afforded them by having early-decision programs, perhaps Yale and Stanford will inspire others to follow their example.

—Sage Stossel

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Sage Stossel is an editor of The Atlantic Online. She draws the weekly cartoon feature, "Sage, Ink."
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