When Yale, Harvard and Stanford move, get out of the way. That’s the first lesson to be learned from the National Association for College Admissions Counseling’s announcement earlier this month that it would allow member schools to use non-binding, single-choice early-action admissions policies. NACAC’s decision has little practical impact on Yale or its counterparts in Cambridge and Palo Alto, all of which had already instituted single-choice early action — where students can submit a non-binding early application as long as they do not apply early to any other school — without the national organization’s approval.
But even if NACAC had little choice but to accept a policy adopted by three of its highest-profile members, the move represents a positive — albeit small — step towards fixing a national admissions system badly in need of repair. Yale’s decision to move to an early-action system two years ago was the right one, and it was made for the right reasons. Early decision puts students seeking financial aid at a disadvantage, reducing their bargaining power as they try to find the best schools they can afford. Early action removes that barrier while, as Yale discovered last year, allowing colleges to become more selective by increasing their applicant pool. And if early-action programs are intended to match students with the colleges to which they are best suited, then it seems only logical that applicants should only be allowed to apply to a single school.
Yet while Yale made the right choice two years ago — and we hope other schools also trade early decision for early action — we believe the University’s current policy still falls short. When Yale President Richard Levin initially announced the early action policy in November 2002, he said he would prefer to get rid of early-admissions programs altogether if he could. That is an important point, and we hope the University has not forgotten it.
Both early-decision and early-action policies help schools who want to ensure that a high percentage of applicants they admit actually enroll as freshmen, but they do little to benefit students or improve the quality of a school’s freshman class. In practice, early-admissions programs help applicants with the right guidance and resources to play the admissions game to their advantage. At a time where an entire industry has emerged to help students get into college, early-admissions policies only add to the inequities of an already unfair system. Ideally, every applicant should be placed in the same pool, even if that makes the college application season a little more stressful for a small number of high school seniors.
We understand that Yale cannot afford to get rid of its early-admissions policies alone. But when the University moved toward early action — initiating a discussion about national admissions policies in the process — others paid attention. Two years ago, Yale showed admirable leadership in trying to change an imperfect admissions system. Yale moved forward, and other colleges and universities have begun to move, too. But if admissions policies are to better serve the interests of college-bound students, we still have farther to go.