Decision to keep early action earns mixed response

Students will still have a chance to apply early to Yale next fall, the University announced Thursday, despite the recent elimination of early admissions at Harvard and Princeton.

After a review of Yale’s single choice early action program, Yale President Richard Levin and Dean of Admissions Jeffrey Brenzel announced Thursday that the University will continue offering the option for high school seniors applying next fall. Outside counselors gave mixed reviews of early admissions policies, but generally agreed that next year will see significant changes in the patterns of early applications to schools that continue to offer the programs.

Citing the fact that low-income students are underrepresented in its early applicant pool, Harvard announced in September that it would abolish its single choice early action program next year. Princeton and the University of Virginia announced their intentions to get rid of their binding early decision programs the following week.

But Brenzel said Yale concluded that the nonbinding early action program offers the most flexibility to applicants – including those applying for financial aid – in making their college choices.

Under the early action program, students have the option of applying only to Yale in November and receiving a decision in mid-December. If accepted, they are not bound to attend Yale and may apply to other schools through regular decision programs.

“This provision provides students the option of expressing a preference for Yale, while freeing them from the pressures associated with binding early decision programs,” he said.

Because students admitted under early action are not required to accept the school’s offer until May, Brenzel said, applicants from low-income families are able to compare financial aid offers before making a decision about where to go to school. Since switching from early decision to early action in 2002, Yale has seen an increase in the number of financial aid students who apply early, Levin said.

In an interview appearing in the January-February edition of the “Yale Alumni Magazine,” Levin said the situation has changed since he stated in 2002 that he would like to see early admissions eliminated everywhere.

“I emphasized that every school would have to eliminate early admissions to achieve the desired result,” Levin said in the interview. “But this is very unlikely to happen. If Yale were to eliminate early admissions now, it is most likely that we would end up with a system where the top three or five schools had no early program, and just about everybody else did.”

Two of Yale’s top four competitors in undergraduate admissions — Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — made it clear after Harvard’s announcement that they were not changing their early action policies. This further emboldened Yale to continue its early program, Levin said.

In conversations with Yale admissions officers, high school counselors and administrators also expressed concern that eliminating early admissions might lead to more competitive students receiving multiple offers from top- and second-tier schools that would otherwise have gone to other students, Levin said.

“We relied quite a bit from the input we got from outside,” he said. “It was pretty clear that no one else was going to move.”

But Harvard officials have said that applicants will benefit most if other schools follow its lead.

“We continue to hope that other schools will join us, because we believe that this change will sharpen the focus of the admissions process on its most important goal – helping students find the right college match,” John Longbrake, a senior communications director at Harvard, said in an e-mail.

In the wake of changes at Harvard and Princeton, Brenzel said, the admissions office is uncertain about how the number of early action applicants will change next year.

“We might see an increase as some students utilize either the Yale or the Stanford or the MIT nonbinding early action programs, while intending to apply later to Harvard or Princeton,” he said. “Other students may decide to apply to binding early decision schools because they would be willing to forego applying later to Harvard or Princeton if accepted at an early decision school they feel to be an excellent fit. Then again, many students who are strongly focused on Harvard or Princeton may simply wait until the regular process to file all of their applications.”

College admissions experts and high school guidance counselors offered mixed assessments of how Yale’s announcement will change the college admissions landscape next year.

Several outside experts said students who otherwise might have applied to Harvard and Princeton will likely submit an early application to Yale, while still applying regular decision to their first choice. Although this might decrease Yale’s yield — the percentage of students admitted who choose to matriculate — that consideration is secondary to assembling a strong class, Levin said.

The University made the right strategic decision to maintain its early option after Harvard and Princeton discontinued theirs, said Chuck Hughes, president of the college admissions counseling firm Road to College and a senior admissions officer at Harvard from 1995 to 2000. Many of the students who would have applied early to Harvard or Princeton will likely apply to Yale, said Hughes, who predicted that Yale will see a 25 to 50 percent increase in early applications next year.

He said Yale’s athletic program is also likely to benefit from retaining early action, since coaches will be able to offer athletic recruits full acceptance by December instead of the inconclusive “likely letters” that Harvard and Princeton coaches will be able to offer.

But Kevin Newman, associate director of college counseling at the private Brentwood School in Los Angeles, Calif., said early admissions programs can accelerate the stress of college applications for high school students.

“For a student who’s admitted [early], of course it relieves their stress, but it moves their stress up earlier in the year to a month and a half before everyone else,” he said. “While everyone else has time to ease into their senior year, these students are already working on applications in September.”

Ken Courtney, head counselor at the public Garfield High School in Seattle, Wash., said he thinks there may be negative repercussions for students who are not in the top group of applicants if the most competitive students choose not to apply early and instead apply to more schools during the regular decision process.

“We have students that apply to ten schools and are accepted to all ten,” he said. “If they just apply to the one [school] through early admissions that they really wanted, those other nine slots could have been given to someone else.”

But colleges and universities are able to account for yield when making admissions decisions, Newman said.

“I don’t think it’s really going to affect kids one way or the other,” he said. “These schools have a good handle on who’s applying and who’s going to actually attend.”

Many current Yalies, as well as those who were admitted in December for the class of 2011, describe early admissions as a blessing.

Stephanie Martin, a senior at Philips Academy Andover in Andover, Mass., was accepted to Yale early and plans to matriculate next fall. She said the greatest benefit of applying early was the peace of mind from finding out months ahead of some of her classmates.

“I think it gave me more of my senior year not to slide necessarily, but to get the process out of the way,” she said. “I think a lot of kids just like knowing as soon as possible.”

Martin said early action in particular is helpful for applicants, because early decision requires an early commitment to one school. Few of her friends thought they were ready to make such an important decision so early in the year, she said.

Mitchell Ji ’09, who applied to Yale early action, said he strongly agrees with the administration’s decision to keep the program. He said he disagrees with Harvard and Princeton that single choice early action programs put some students at a disadvantage.

“I think it’s good that Yale is keeping early an option for applicants — I don’t quite understand why it hurts those seeking financial aid, because it isn’t binding,” he said. “It’s also nice to see Yale stand firm for once and not follow in the footsteps of Harvard.”

This fall, Yale accepted 709 students from 3,594 early applicants for an admit rate of 19.7 percent, an increase from last year’s Ivy League record-low acceptance rate of 17.7 percent.

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