Early decision and elitism in the Ivy League

Pity poor President Richard Levin. After he admitted late last semester that he opposes the early-admissions process, he must have spent the rest of the day trying to find a store on Broadway that sold slings and stones.

Taking on early admissions is a formidable task, even as an influential, well-connected president of an elite university. While Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania both responded positively to Levin’s critique of the admissions process, Harvard remained silent and Columbia professed its happiness with the current system.

No one is pretending that there is a quick solution, especially as long as Yale’s perceived competition refuses to enter a dialogue on the subject oriented toward change. Add the voices of everyone from neurotic suburban parents to adamant alumni and the resulting debate is as constructive as a conversation at Toad’s Place.

Any discussion of the college admissions process inevitably becomes a stalemate of equally true but opposing facts. Binding early-decision programs benefit universities obsessed with matriculation statistics. Binding early-decision programs and their higher admit rates give an advantage to students who apply in the fall. Binding early-decision programs disadvantage students who need financial aid, can’t visit colleges, or have mediocre guidance counselors.

Despite the truth in all these statements, they manage to inspire an amount of passion on the part of students, colleges and high schools that rivals that of a “Blind Date” hot tub scene. Bring up the subject of early decision at dinner — make sure you have a few “earlies,” some “regulars,” and a wait-listee, legacy, or recruited athlete there for good measure — and you’d think you were watching the final segment of PBS’ “The McLaughlin Group.”

The problem with discussing the early-decision process is that the real arguments become buried under the emotions associated with the subject. Beyond senior years, high yields, diversified student bodies and financial aid packages are deeper truths that few universities or even Americans, for that matter, are confident enough to address.

The contradictions in American society become more conscious when subjected to the competitive college admissions process. The truth is that early-decision programs favor students from wealthy, middle- and upper-class schools where the guidance counselors are well-schooled on the admissions process and comparison-shopping of financial aid packages is unnecessary. As a result, student bodies end up looking more like elite prep schools than the 50-state all-American quilts colleges claim to represent.

The admissions season at elite colleges inspires such intense reactions because it challenges what we have been conditioned to believe: hard work brings you success, everyone is equal, opportunity is endless.

Applying to Yale teaches you that hard work is pointless without a bit of luck, opportunity is limited to 1,500 people, and “equal” is not an appropriate adjective to describe income, education or social standing.

Early decision is emblematic of the nation’s silent socioeconomic rifts. For our Dec. 15s and April 1s, there are 363 other days where the same conflicts occur without comment from university administrators or The New York Times. Levin, in reminding colleges of admissions as a means of ensuring intellectual diversity, not yields and rankings, has proven himself to be more of a Kingman Brewster than the bland economist he once seemed.

But if he’s chosen this as his battle, he’s in for a long fight.



Sarah Merriman is a senior in Pierson College. Her columns appear on alternate Thursdays.

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