President Levin’s announcement that Yale will move to a nonbinding early application policy for the class of 2008 sent something short of a shock wave yesterday through admissions offices and high schools around the country. Considering the year of debate Levin instigated with his very public declaration of distaste for early admission last December, Yale’s decision and the reaction that followed last night amounts to something closer to a small rumble.
Under the new policy, applicants will commit to applying early only to Yale but will not be forced to matriculate here if they are accepted — the main difference between the old early decision policy and the new early action one. Yale, in effect, has tinkered with the current system, and the result is a distinctly improved policy, but one that still frontloads the admissions process and benefits institutions while putting students at a disadvantage.
The move adequately addresses two of the great evils of early decision: that it forces high school seniors to be ready to commit to one school by November in order to capitalize on the strategic benefits of applying early, and that it prevents students who need to compare financial aid packages from taking advantage of those benefits at all.
But it fails to fix the major problem with the system — that numerical advantages to applying early exist at all. For this reason, the switch to early action is at once a positive first step and a distinctly underwhelming one. And as of now, the admissions process remains a numbers game.
By not permitting students to apply early to other schools, the new policy does well to avoid propagating an early action system like the one at Harvard, which, if expanded to top-tier schools around the country would essentially move the whole process forward to the fall, essentially cutting off the last year of high school for students.
But by failing to cap the number of students the University will accept early — which currently is higher than the percent accepted during regular decision — Levin has effectively said Yale will continue to privilege students able to spend their summers touring campuses and their junior years calculating admissions odds. Now students who apply early to Yale have the same strategic advantages as before; they just avoid the risk of commitment.
Levin has done well to take advantage of the prolonged media spotlight and to maintain his position of admissions trend-setter. As a result, he has demonstrated his ability to be at the head of widespread change. Within hours of his decision, Stanford adopted the same policy, and chances are more will follow. But he failed to use that sway to really change the way students approach the college admissions process.
Levin’s professed goal has always been to get rid of early admissions altogether, a move that would benefit high school students everywhere. In the meantime, the move to early action is the first step and a modest one. Levin should continue to talk about ways of improving the process. Because if Yale says so, it seems, others are inclined to follow.