Early admissions still ignite debate

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In December 2001, Yale President Richard Levin sparked a national debate when he publicly called for the abolition of early admissions in universities across the country, but to this day such an overhaul of the early admissions system has remained unrealized.

Recognizing that Yale could not act unilaterally to completely eliminate early admissions, and faced with increasingly dim prospects that other institutions would join him to change the system almost a year after his initial outcry, Levin decided to initiate reform on his own by switching to a single-choice, non-binding early action admissions policy at Yale in November 2002.

Though this change was not the momentous shift Levin had earlier expressed, at the time he said he was hopeful that other Ivy League schools would follow in Yale’s footsteps, creating an admissions system that University administrators said gave high school seniors more choices and less pressure. But because of antitrust issues, Levin could not actively recruit such a following.

“I haven’t discussed it with my peers because I am cautions about preserving independent decision making in this area,” Levin said. “I don’t want to be involved in any sort of concerted activity. However, I had hoped that more schools would have followed Yale’s lead.”

While a number of universities expressed interest in the program when it was originally unveiled, only Harvard, Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have switched to single-choice early action since his announcement two years ago, Levin said.

Levin, an economics professor, views this situation in terms of numbers. He said universities are reluctant to abandon binding early admissions because they are concerned with admissions numbers, specifically yield rate figures or the percentage of students accepted who enroll.

Under the binding early decision program, students can only apply to one school and are bound to attend that school if admitted.

“When we initially moved to single choice early action, we were within hours followed by Stanford, and within weeks by Harvard and MIT, and frankly those are three of the four schools that are our most direct competitors,” he said. “I had hoped this would move to other Ivy League schools. It hasn’t. And in part, the reasons are not hard to understand. If you’re a school with a very high yield [like Yale], you are less concerned about locking people in. If you’re a school with a lower yield, it becomes more important.”

Choate Rosemary Hall Director of College Counseling Rosita Fernandez-Rojo agreed with Levin that schools may be reluctant to abandon early decision because it gives institutions a competitive edge in the college marketplace by increasing yield rates.

But other admissions experts said numbers alone will not explain the resistance some universities have towards changing policies that have worked for decades.

Chris Avery, a public policy professor at Harvard and author of “The Early Admissions Game: Joining the Elite,” said Columbia and Cornell universities, the University of Pennsylvania, and Dartmouth College are unlikely to switch from the early decision policies which they currently use because they have used binding early decision since the 1970s and are historically committed to this policy.

“If you believe in history you might also believe those other four colleges won’t change back,” Avery said. “If a college has had a program for that long, there might be a particular liking for that program.”

Some admissions officers, including University of Pennsylvania Dean of Admissions Lee Stetson expressed a preference for binding early decision because it attracts students who are more committed and serious about the institution.

Similarly, officials at Princeton University, which operates under the binding early decision program, said binding early decision acts as a filter to determine which students are truly committed to Princeton.

“What the binding policy does is say that these students who are applying early have really taken the time to figure out what about Princeton is really right for them … and so it makes it easier for us to determine if they’re a good match for us,” Princeton Director of Communications Lauren Robinson-Brown said.

Admissions experts said another main factor preventing other universities from switching to single-choice early action programs is the past absence of endorsement for the policy from the National Association for College Admissions Counseling. The NACAC is an organization of high school counselors and college admissions and financial aid officers, which only this fall said it supported single-choice early action.

In the past, the NACAC’s endorsement or disapproval of certain admissions programs has influenced schools’ admissions policies.

Both Harvard and Brown complied with past requests of the NACAC by switching, in 2002 for Harvard and 1999 for Brown, from single-choice early action to a multiple-choice version of early action — the only version of early action endorsed by the NACAC at the time. This change was temporary, as an overwhelming number of applications received under the unrestricted early action policy caused the universities to switch their policies again, Harvard to single-choice early action in 2003 and Brown to early decision in 2001.

Shaw characterized the most recent NACAC support of single-choice early action as the first step towards convincing other schools that the policy is a legitimate, viable and preferable option. Shaw said the single-choice early action program gives students more freedom, especially when comparing financial aid offers, an option binding early decision does not allow.

“We found some kids locked into early decision, and then suddenly stuck,” Shaw said. “In this system, you can say Yale is your first choice, but you’re not locked in. We urge students to go ahead and consider other schools.”

Already, Brown Dean of Admissions Michael Goldberger said that the university will “surely consider” a switch to single-choice early action this coming year and “very serious” discussions will take place starting this summer as a result of the most recent NACAC endorsement of the policy.

But even with the newest NACAC endorsement, NACAC Executive Director Joyce Smith said admissions policies are ultimately an individual school’s decision, and what works best for Yale may not work best for other institutions.

“I think everybody is still trying to figure out what works best for them,” Smith said. “One size doesn’t fit all, and I think that’s what we’re finding.”

For Yale, single-choice early action continues to be the best fit, Levin said.

“I think single-choice early action has worked extremely well for Yale and the other schools that adopted it. I think we’re regarded as being sympathetic to the concerns of high school students.”

While Levin is content with the University’s current policy, he said he still holds onto his original dream.

“That’s my dream,” Levin said. “I would love to see an end to all early admission programs.”

But he said this dream can only come about with cooperation from other schools.

Avery said it is still too early to predict if this support will arrive.

“I think that it was always very unclear from the beginning whether a lot of schools would switch at the same time and I think in a sense that it’s still sort of early in the game,” Avery said. “I think it might take awhile before everything settles. It is certainly possible that other schools will make changes in the next couple years in response.”

A worker combs through the stacks of files that arrive daily through early admissions.
Leo Stevens
A worker combs through the stacks of files that arrive daily through early admissions.

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