The waiting game on early decision

After announcing in December that he favors eliminating early admissions programs, Yale President Richard Levin has said Yale will not change its early decision policy for the coming year. Instead, Levin said, the University will try to reach an agreement with other selective institutions to change early admissions policies collectively.

Ivy League administrators, however, have had mixed reactions to Levin’s announcement. And while Levin has said he would prefer to abandon early admissions programs entirely, he has also suggested less drastic solutions that would solve some, if not all, of the problems he identified with the current policies. These options include a non-binding early action program and a cap on the number of students admitted early.

Levin said he thought it would be shortsighted for Yale to alter the early decision policy alone without first attempting to reach a collective decision among Ivy League and other selective colleges. He said acting unilaterally would put Yale at a competitive disadvantage and might actually forestall negotiations with other schools.

“People might say, ‘Yale is at a competitive disadvantage, why should we follow?'” Levin said. “If we make some move, capping the numbers or going to early action, that might actually chill our discussions with other schools.”

James Fallows, who wrote an Atlantic Monthly article last November arguing for the abolition of early decision policies, said it is reasonable for Yale to wait to try for collective action rather than changing its policy unilaterally.

“It would temporarily put a school at a bidding disadvantage by laying down its weapons early,” Fallows said. “By saying that Yale is skeptical, [Levin] has pushed the first domino.”



Early action options

Levin said the biggest problem with binding early decision is that it discriminates against less affluent students who want to compare financial aid packages.

A non-binding early action program, in which students can apply regular decision to additional colleges after being accepted early, would allow students to compare financial aid packages and make their final decision in the spring rather than in October or November. Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Georgetown, and the University of Chicago all currently have early action policies.

But Levin and others said early action has flaws as well.

“One concern about [applying] early action [to] multiple schools is of course, you just bring the whole process forward, and that actually exacerbates the process of making up your mind early,” Levin said.

Dean of Undergraduate Admissions and Financial Aid Richard Shaw said he loses sleep thinking about what would happen if many schools switched to early action without a provision that students could only apply to one school early.

“If everything was open early, you’d have tens of thousands of kids saying, ‘Why not?'” Shaw said. “I fear we would get buried alive in applications and have one month to evaluate them.”

This year, Brown University switched from non-binding early action to binding early decision because of similar logistical concerns, Brown Director of Admissions Michael Goldberger said.

“Last year when we got up over 5,200 early action applications — instead of doing committee with seven or eight people on it, we had to split up into two committees of four people and instead of spending a lot of time on each file, we had to fly through the files,” Goldberger said. “I didn’t think it was really fair to the applicants, and I didn’t think it was fair to the staff to not have lengthy discuss on each applicant.”

Goldberger said, however, that he would gladly switch back to early action, provided that applications were limited to one school.

“I would be happy if every school had early action and said you could only apply to one school early action,” Goldberger said. “And if they said whatever the admit rate was last year, that should be our early admit rate.”



Capping early admittance

The strategy of limiting the number of students accepted early decision is another solution Levin proposed.

“If we really were taking only 10 percent [of the] early [pool], you might be able to credibly say to people, unless you are absolutely certain, it doesn’t pay to apply early,” Levin said.

Levin said this change would eliminate the problem of students applying early as a strategic move. Currently, acceptance rates are much higher in the early decision pool than in the regular decision round. This year, Yale accepted 25.9 percent of its early applicants and 10.9 percent of its regular applicants. The students admitted early decision this year make up 42 percent of the incoming class.

Levin said that while Yale and Harvard use the same criteria for students who apply early and students who apply regular decision, schools like Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania explicitly favor students who apply in the early round.

The admissions directors at Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania did not return phone calls.

Tom Parker, the dean of admissions and financial aid at Amherst, said Amherst accepts no more than 30 percent of its class through early decision.

“My whole feeling is that whether it’s early action or early decision doesn’t make a whole lot of difference — what makes enough difference is eliminating it completely — or exercising enough self discipline to only admit 20 or 25 or 30 percent of your class because then you’re not endangering the diversity of the class, whereas with 45 or 50 percent you really are.”



The Catch-22 of collective action

Shaw and Levin both said they feel it is important to try to reach a collective decision among highly selective institutions.

But the admissions directors at Harvard and Dartmouth each said they believe there may be legal limitations to collective action.

“We are each obligated to make those decisions individually. Any concerted action with regard to admissions would seem inappropriate,” Dartmouth Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Karl Furstenberg said. “The only action we are allowed to take in a concerted effort has to do with athletics.”

Marlyn McGrath Lewis, the director of admissions at Harvard, agreed.

“In fact, it would be highly improper, illegal, to make a deal,” McGrath Lewis said.

Levin has an extensive background in antitrust economics and said that from his point of view acting collectively to change the early decision policy would not violate antitrust law.

“The total number of students would be the same, so there are not quantity effects,” Levin said. “It’s not going to affect how much students pay.”

Levin said, nevertheless, that the schools would have to ensure that they were not violating the law before taking any collective action. He said the only objection he foresees is that changing the early decision policy could be seen as depriving applicants of an option by eliminating early programs.

Furstenberg said he is concerned about this possibility.

“Students could argue that early decision is something that is advantageous to them, and that that may constitute a restraint of trade,” Furstenberg said.

Furstenberg, along with other admissions officers, has said early decision works well for his school and for the students who apply.

“More philosophically, I still don’t see why students should be prevented from stating in an official way that a school is their first choice, and be able to apply to that school,” Furstenberg said.

Doris Davis, the associate provost of admissions and enrollment at Cornell, has said Cornell is not considering revising its early decision program either.

But Fallows said that if Yale, Harvard, Stanford and the most prestigious small schools made the decision to change their policies, they would not necessarily need the support of any other schools. McGrath Lewis said her office has been wishing there were a process with no early programs for a long time. And Fallows said administrators at Stanford have been open to the idea of revising their early decision policies as well.

Levin said he is optimistic about coming to a collective decision for action. But, he said, if these efforts fail, he will consider other options for Yale.

“If that goes nowhere,” Levin said. “I would not rule out some unilateral action alternative.”

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