Next Fall, Yale returns to 1976.

Early decision caught the Yale community’s attention one year ago when President Richard Levin told The New York Times that he opposed the policy because it forced students to think about college too early. Months of debate culminated in Levin’s announcement last month that Yale would move to nonbinding early action — the same policy it had almost 30 years ago — for the class of 2008.

But the controversy did not begin with Levin, and next fall will not be the first time the university has had an Early Action policy. Yale has a long history of pre-April admissions and evaluations. But despite its years of experience with early admissions, Yale is still finding the right fit.

The ABC’s of Admissions

Long before it had a formal early admissions policy, Yale had an arrangement with certain “feeder schools” — mostly private boys’ boarding schools from which it consistently drew students — called the ABC system. The system ranked applicants “A” for exceptional candidates, “B” for marginal candidates and “C” for unlikely candidates before final admissions decisions were made. The policy was in place from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, said sociology professor Joseph Soares, who has researched Yale admissions in the mid-20th century.

Yale, Harvard and Princeton all used this system in order to give counselors or school masters “a good sense of whether or not boys were taken care of,” Soares said.

To some, such as professor emeritus Gaddis Smith, the system represented the fact that Yale’s admissions office was “hand-in-glove” with elite Ivy League prep schools. Soares said that when Yale unilaterally backed out of the ABC system in the mid-1960s, former Yale President Kingman Brewster Jr. and former Dean of Admissions Inky Clark said they wanted to show public schools that Yale was interested in receiving more applications from their students. But the system was not public until Yale backed out, and the boys themselves did not know their rankings. Soares said this level of secrecy was not unusual at the time — students did not even know their SAT scores until 1958.

“The norm in those days was that the individual boy did not know a lot of these things,” Soares said.

Yale later instituted an “Early Evaluation” system under which Yale sent candidates who applied by mid-December a “likely,” “possible” or “unlikely” rating before the final April notification date. The system was in place when Yale instituted early action in 1976, and was in some ways seen as a precursor to early action. Brewster told the Yale Daily News in February 1976 that the move to early action was not likely to be of “cosmic importance” because Yale took 90 percent of its “likely” applicants.

Early action early on

When Yale moved to nonbinding early action a month ago, the university was not new to the policy — the admissions office first gave applicants the option in the 1976. In February of that year, former Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Worth David announced that Yale would add an early action option. The policy, which was in place through fall 1994, was essentially identical to the one Yale will move to next fall.

Under the 1976 policy, students who applied by Nov. 1 would generally find out by mid-December if Yale had accepted, rejected or deferred its decision until April, when regular-deadline applicants heard back from the University. According to Levin, the 1976 policy allowed students to apply to only one school early.

David said in the Yale Bulletin that Yale thought early adecision “commits a candidate prematurely.” Early action, he thought, would let applicants indicate that a certain college was their clear first choice without trapping them.

“Early Action promises to provide a real service to applicants and was endorsed with enthusiasm by Yale during the Ivy discussions which resulted in this change in admissions procedure,” David said in the Bulletin.

Decision time

Yale broke no new ground when it decided to change its early admissions policy to binding early decision for the Class of 2000. Early Decision had been around since the 1960’s at colleges across the country and was already in place at four Ivies — Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth and the University of Pennsylvania — when in 1995, Yale decided to change its policy. Princeton had also decided earlier that year to move to Early Decision.

Under the policy, which was in place through this past November, Yale required applicants to sign contracts stating that they would attend Yale if accepted unless they felt they would receive an insufficient financial aid package.

When Yale announced the switch, Dean of Admissions Richard Shaw, then dean of undergraduate admissions and financial aid, told the Yale Daily News the University wanted more assurance that its early candidates were serious about coming to Yale. Shaw and other admissions officials said they were concerned a nonbinding policy would allow students to “displace” their peers by seeking acceptance to a school they did not plan to attend. Despite the fact that Shaw and other Yale officials predicted the number of early applications would drop and conceded that binding policies limited students’ options, Yale changed its policy to early decision.

As predicted, early applications dropped by nearly a third the next fall. But Shaw said he was “very pleased with the numbers.” Smith noted that, for the most part, Yale took a favorable stance toward early decision throughout the late 1990’s.

“Until President Levin spoke out against it, Yale’s announcements were all in praise of early decision,” Smith said.

Concerns arise

Levin was not the only one to alter his view of early decision.

Renee Gernand, the College Board’s senior director of guidance services, said the change was due in part to the public realization that early applicants might have a better shot at acceptance. Binding early decision, Gernand added, became more popular as colleges saw that it helped them “lock in” students early and boosted their matriculation statistics.

Another major concern about early decision was whether it unwittingly discriminated against students applying for financial aid. Studies have found early applicant pools for various colleges to be less diverse than regular-admissions pools on the whole, Gernand said. Critics of early application programs were concerned about the consequences to a school’s diversity if a higher percentage of students were drawn from a less diverse pool of applicants.

Levin’s objections to early decision centered around similar issues. In a comment to The New York Times, Levin said he disliked the fact that early decision forced students to think about college as early as their junior year of high school, and recently said that he had been concerned about the negative aspects of early decision for “several years.”

“After a few years of [early decision], I began to be concerned about it and gradually came to the view that I expressed a year ago,” he said.

Making changes

Over the course of the past year, Yale debated several options for changing its early decision policy. These options included getting rid of early admissions entirely, or making less drastic changes — such as “capping” the number of students admitted early or moving to nonbinding early action.

When the university announced a month ago that it had decided on nonbinding early action, the perceived advantages were clear. Giving students until May 1 to commit to a school would allow those applying for financial aid to consider their options fully as well as avoid trapping students who had a change of heart. Shaw said the idea was to “bring it back to a place where students are really selecting their one shot early because it’s clear and away their first choice.”

Proponents of capping early acceptances said if the admit rate was kept low, only students for whom Yale was a clear first choice would apply. Levin said the admissions committee thought about capping, but decided the early applicant pool is so strong they did not want to risk discouraging students by deferring them.

The questionable future

When the University announced its impending move to early action, Levin said he saw the change as a first step toward eliminating all early admissions programs. But he said further steps would require coordination with other schools — coordination he originally hoped for when he announced his opposition to early decision.

“I think we can’t [move away from early admissions altogether] until there’s more movement toward the relaxation of early admissions elsewhere,” Levin said.