When Yale President Richard Levin told the New York Times Dec. 12 that he opposes early-decision programs, he sparked a debate that has raged in the national press and among high school and college administrators, students and parents over the past month.
The discussions incited by Levin’s comments have included concerns about whether students are ready to commit to one college by mid-fall of their senior year, the added stress of deciding early, inequities between privileged and less advantaged students, and about who the early programs are meant to benefit.
Levin offered multiple solutions to an early-decision policy he said was flawed, including capping the number of students accepted early, instituting non-binding early action instead of early decision, or eliminating early programs all together.
But Levin also said Yale would not abandon early decision alone because the University would be put at a serious disadvantage relative to its peer institutions. He said he was looking for support from other Ivy League schools.
Admissions directors around the Ivies took differing positions about early decision.
Karl Furstenberg, director of admissions at Dartmouth, said officials at Dartmouth have discussed their policies in the wake of Levin’s comments, but that the discussions have confirmed their interest in continuing early decision. He added that he believes each school should make its decision individually.
“The notion that schools would come to some agreement, we’re uncomfortable about that,” Furstenberg said.
Marlyn McGrath Lewis, director of undergraduate admissions at Harvard, which has a non-binding early action program, called binding early-decision programs “unethical and counter-productive educationally.”
“We’ve been for a long time wishing that we lived in a world where there are no early programs,” McGrath Lewis said. “We think that everybody, institutions, schools, everybody are served better by full and deliberate effort in the spring to look at everyone all in one batch.”
Doris Davis, the associate provost of admissions and enrollment at Cornell University, wrote in an e-mail that Cornell will stand by its decades-old early-decision policy because it is “an appropriate option for students who have decided that Cornell is their #1 choice.”
Forcing a choice
Susan Paton, the director of college counseling at New Haven’s Hopkins School, estimated that less than half of the 60 percent of this year’s senior class who applied early to college knew that the school to which they were applying was their heartfelt first choice.
“Students find enormous pressure to find a school to apply to early,” Paton said.
This pressure comes from a variety of sources, including parents and the guidance counselors themselves.
“My college counselors were saying that [applying early] was a good idea,” said Lisa Kant, a senior at Hopkins who was accepted early decision to Yale. “They talk about the fact that it can increase your chances of getting in.”
Richard Shaw, dean of undergraduate admissions and financial aid at Yale, said the perceived advantage in applying early has become part of the mythology surrounding early decision.
“In some cases [the advantage] might be real,” Shaw said. “Our [early] admit rate was 26 percent, and the overall admit rate was 16 percent, but that’s also because it’s highly self selecting, and most students, if we took them now, we’d take them later.”
But Robert Koppert, director of college counseling at Dalton High School in New York City, where 70 percent of the 117 seniors applied early in November, said the admission numbers at his school paint a telling picture.
“Last year we had a half dozen who were admitted early [to Yale] and none who were admitted in the regular round,” Koppert said. “People around here do the math.”
The stress bug
For those admitted, early decision can be a blessing for their senior year.
“So many people are eager to get it out of the way. It makes senior year so much more enjoyable if you know where you’re going,” said Amanda Stauffer ’04, who was accepted to Yale early decision.
But guidance counselors worry that early-decision programs can add more stress to many students’ lives by pushing the college process further back into the junior and sophomore years.
“Everything is condensed into an earlier time,” Paton said.
But Furstenberg said he thinks early decision may lessen some of the pressure and interruption of the senior year.
“They submit only one application, if they get in they’re done,” Furstenberg said. “If there were no early decision, I actually think it could make the pressure in the process worse because students would have to wait longer, until April, and the result of that would be that they’d submit more applications.”
Koppert said he thinks students would ultimately apply to fewer schools if there were no early programs.
“We had 41 admitted and 41 that were not,” Koppert said. “[Students] lose sleep over the fact that they’ve been deferred. They see themselves as second-class applicants. [They] feel that they have to apply to 10 to 12 schools rather than 6 or 8.”
One argument against early decision is that it favors affluent students because it is not a realistic option for students who need to compare size and make-up of financial aid packages when determining where they will go to college.
“This is truly a rich kids’ game,” McGrath Lewis said. She said one of the reasons Harvard prefers its non-binding early-action program is that it allows students to compare financial aid packages if they choose to apply to other schools regular decision.
Tom Parker, dean of admission and financial aid at Amherst College, said he deliberately limits the percentage of students it admits early to 30 percent because he believes admitting more than that can have adverse affects on the socioeconomic make-up of the classes.
Danielle Ives ’03 said she did not apply early to Yale because she knew the size of financial aid packages from different schools would play a big role in her decision about where to go. Ives said early decision is a “slap in the face” to students like herself.
“It really offends me that kids who can afford to apply early decision because they have enough money to do so have a better chance of getting in than I would have,” Ives said.
Walking the talk
Shaw said an advisory committee chaired by Levin and Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead will be convening soon to discuss Yale’s early decision policies.
Levin has said Yale is looking for support from his Ivy League colleagues, but some admissions directors said their schools will likely not change their policies.
The question remains then, whether Yale, or any other institution, will be able to convince enough schools to go along with it, or strike out on its own in changing the early-decision system with concrete action.