By Andrew K on February 1, 2007
On September 12th, 2006, Harvard College announced that its early admission program would be coming to an end. Shortly thereafter, Princeton’s trustees (who happened to be meeting that weekend) decided to follow suit. As they describe (see http://www.princeton.edu/~paw/web_exclusives/plus/plus_101106rapelye. html), they assumed that following in Harvard’s footsteps immediately would make them appear on the top of their game, as Yale, Stanford, and others would surely follow. Princeton could pretend that it, like Harvard, had been a trend-setter. But as it happened, no peer institutions took the plunge. This has left many to wonder what will happen now that Harvard and Princeton have effectively become non-contenders in the early admissions game. Princeton, which filled 48% of its class of 2011 through its binding Early Decision program, appears to be especially vulnerable after this change. In fact, if Princeton welcomes even a very-modest 5% of those deferred from the early cycle to the regular, a full 60% of the class of 2011 will have applied early.
Because of intense competition for the best students, colleges do everything in their power to appear attractive. And, just as a selling point for a pair of designer pants might be its $800 price tag and the fact that only twenty have been made, a college’s appearance of selectivity can be one of its most important features; call it elitism. When a student applies through a single-choice early admission program, even a non-binding one such as Harvard’s Single Choice Early Action (SCEA), he is essentially declaring first-choice college, or at least strong preference. Taking advantage of this fact, admissions departments that select heavily from the early-application pool will be able to grant far fewer offers of admission overall, as a larger percentage of those offered admission will matriculate.
There are, of course, other advantages to early admission programs. In addition to the convenience factor for students, they are a great asset to the admissions department in terms of predictability and class building. Even for most schools in the Ivy League, more than half of applicants admitted in the regular cycle will enroll elsewhere. At schools like Chicago, Johns Hopkins, and Duke, this number is about three quarters (with an overall yield percentage in the low 30s, even after the early decision programs are factored in). Because of their nearly-perfect yield, early decision programs allow admissions departments to ensure that they create a balanced and diverse class (for example, that there are enough musicians to keep the orchestra program alive, while not having a violinist in every other room). Also, by creating a separate (early) admissions cycle, these programs allow the admissions department to better spread out its work, and read applications more thoroughly (and, indeed, even reread deferred applications from the early pool).
With all of these advantages, then, why would schools even consider ending early admissions? Critics have presented two main arguments. First, affluent students with college consultants are more likely to use early admissions programs; poorer students are often unaware of the existence of such programs, or that they confer advantages in terms of likelihood of admission. Additionally, those poorer students who do apply to a binding program will not have the ability to “shop around” for financial aid at different colleges (for example, asking Brown to match Columbia’s offer). For these reasons, certain segments of the Brown community want the University to drop its program, as well.
But while there are indeed equity issues in the admissions process, ending early admissions programs will not solve them. As Yale University stated in its announcement that it would not terminate its SCEA program, issues of attracting applicants are best addressed with recruitment efforts. Additionally, and perhaps closer to the core of the problem, are the “soft” admissions criteria that colleges use. Nearly every component, such as having taken the “right” classes, having engaged in the “right” extra-curricular activates, and having worked at the “right” jobs, is predisposed to favoring wealthy applicants, whose families can devote conscious effort to sculpting their resume during high-school (and, indeed, even earlier). This is hardly specific to the early cycle of the admissions process.
Secondly, the concern about financial aid shopping is, oddly enough, not relevant to early programs like Harvard’s. While one may not apply to early programs elsewhere under the terms of Harvard SCEA program, one is not committed to attend if admitted, and may apply to regular-cycle programs at any other school. While binding ED programs such as Brown’s and Princeton’s do not allow this choice, a switch to SCEA would seem a far more logical compromise as compared to scrapping the program entirely.
With the equity argument so incredibly weak, despite its being the only reason cited by Harvard for terminating its program, it is clear that there must have been other, less altruistic motivation. Indeed, it would seem that there are many. Sixty-five percent of students admitted to both Harvard and Yale choose to enroll at Harvard, according to numbers released recently by the New York Times. From there, victories only become more lopsided: Brown, for example, wins only eleven percent of cross-admits, and only Yale, Stanford, Princeton, MIT, and Cal Tech do better. In the past, changes at Harvard have heralded changes everywhere else. Were other universities to end their early admissions programs (most of which are binding Early Decision), Harvard would have access to a much larger applicant pool, where it would clearly be positioned on top.
In light of this, Princeton’s hasty decision to abandon its ED program, upon which it has been so dependent, appears all the more ridiculous. Applicants who might previously have applied to Harvard or Princeton through their early admissions programs will now apply to Yale or Stanford, both of which have non-binding SCEA programs, as these applicants have absolutely nothing to lose by doing so. And many of these early applicants to Yale and Stanford, having been admitted, will decide not to bother with Harvard and Princeton after all. For Brown, which already has trouble against Stanford (we win only 25% of cross-admits), an end to early admissions would be even more damaging.
This is not to argue against change in Brown’s early program, however. When Brown switched from early action to binding early decision for the class of 2005, the number of early applications it received fell by about 2000 applications, or 50% of the total (Brown Daily Herald, “Brown Early Decision Applications,” 12/5/05). When Yale and Stanford switched from ED to SCEA, a reverse trend occurred, and both schools received significantly more applications from poorer students. If Brown were to switch to SCEA, it would certainly end up with a lower yield: early applicants to Brown might apply elsewhere during the regular cycle, and, to their detriment of course, be attracted away from College Hill. However, yield from SCEA is always substantially higher than from the regular application cycle, and, taking account of the overall much increased applicant-pool size (and diversity), Brown would probably end up admitting a smaller overall percentage of students after the switch than before. We might need a few more admissions-department staffers, but with Harvard and Princeton acting as they have, the University’s potential to attract top-quality students could not be better.