Yale President Richard Levin’s statement last month that it would be a “good thing” for elite colleges to abandon early-decision programs demonstrates a commendable action on his part to reform the currently flawed admissions process. Reported and editorialized in The New York Times, Levin’s comment has generated a much-needed and enlightening debate on early decision and its numerous and overwhelming drawbacks.
A well-intentioned idea when it was first implemented, early decision was originally supposed to provide a way for high school students to indicate to one university that it was the student’s top choice. But the combination of heightened competition for slots in top universities and the increasing obsession of parents and guidance counselors with the admissions process has caused early decision to degenerate into more of a strategic enterprise than a useful signaling mechanism. The upshot is a system that not only fails to fulfill its basic intent, but also unnecessarily adds to the tension of high school students and wrongly discriminates against certain applicants.
For students at prestigious schools like Manhattan’s Trinity School and New Haven’s Hopkins School — where about 70 percent and 60 percent, respectively, of the senior class applied early — high schoolers often feel pressured into choosing a school to apply early to, instead of focusing on their high school experience and gradually gaining the information to make an informed college decision when the time comes. Furthermore, binding early decision prohibits students from applying to more than one school, giving them an incentive to avoid applying to “reach” schools and instead settle on a compromise choice. Those who either lack the resources to formulate such a strategy or who choose not to compromise face longer odds in the tougher pool of regular admission.
Of equal concern is the fact that early decision often deters those who need financial aid from applying early. Since students are committed to enrolling if accepted, they are denied the option of comparing financial aid offers from different universities when making their decision on which school to attend. While colleges ostensibly provide a mechanism through which students can renegotiate their financial aid proposals after being accepted early decision, the process is not only tedious but also prevents accepted students from gaining the leverage necessary to bargain with financial aid offices.
There are multiple potential solutions to the problems of early decision — imposing a ceiling on the number of early acceptances, moving back to early action only, or, best of all, scrapping early admissions entirely. Whatever recommendations Yale’s administrators decide to make, ensuring equivalent action across the board by other Ivy League universities will likely be a necessary precondition for change. Because early decision makes things easier for admissions offices and allows some schools to steal risk-averse top applicants from more prestigious universities, this may prove a difficult charge. Regardless, Yale should fight hard to sustain public debate on the issue and continue to insist that the experiment of early decision at top colleges has gone wrong.