Change on Early Admission Produces Application Shifts

The New York Times
By Karen W. Arenson

November 13, 2003 — Changes in the early admissions rules at Harvard, Yale and Stanford have produced sharp shifts in where students applied early this year.

Harvard, which tightened its policy slightly, saw early applications fall 47 percent. But Yale and Stanford, which both loosened their policies so students admitted early no longer had to promise to attend, saw big increases in early applications. Stanford’s jumped 62 percent while Yale’s was up 42 percent.

Some colleges that made no changes regarding early applications also appear to have been affected by the changing landscape. Early applications at Princeton, for example, which uses a binding plan, were down about 23 percent. (Admissions officials all said that their numbers were approximations since applications were still trickling in.) And the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which uses a nonbinding early action plan, saw early applications fall about 22 percent.

The colleges that made the changes said they were trying to reduce pressure surrounding admissions to the most selective institutions. Yale and Stanford, which had previously used binding early decision programs, switched to nonbinding ones. Most of these programs admit applicants in mid-December if they apply by November.

But in a twist, Yale and Stanford said they would prohibit their early action applicants from applying early to any other college, a policy called “single-choice early action.”

Other colleges that offer nonbinding early action, like M.I.T., allow their students to apply early to other colleges as well. Harvard, which had had a nonbinding early action program like M.I.T. and Chicago, this year moved to “single-choice.”

“Last year we heard about students firing off a range of early applications without doing much homework about where they really wanted to go,” said William R. Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard. “In the long run, we think this is going to be the best answer for a sane and comfortable admissions process.”

But Christopher Avery and Richard Zeckhauser, Harvard professors and co-authors with Andrew Fairbanks of “The Early Admissions Game,” said the big swings in early application numbers were further evidence that many of the early applications had much to do with students’ efforts to work the system to their advantage.

“Very little has happened in the last year at Harvard, Princeton, Yale or Stanford to shift students preferences for those colleges so dramatically,” Professor Zeckhauser said. “What students are doing is trying to maximize their chances of getting in; they are behaving strategically.”

Many colleges counselors said that their students felt as much pressure as ever and were rearranging their choices to respond to the new rules.

“This isn’t reducing the frenzy,” said Steven Goodman, an independent counselor in Washington. “All it’s doing is changing where they are applying. Students at competitive high schools are still saying, `I need to apply early somewhere.’ ”

Suzan S. Reznick, an independent consultant in Peekskill, N.Y., said that several of the students she advises had been under “pressure from their parents to choose `high status’ schools over what may in fact be the best fit for them.”

“I had a very anxious young lady this morning,” Ms. Reznick added in an e-mail message, “who felt she had disappointed her dad by her early decision choice and was wrestling now with withdrawing that choice to make him happy.”

There has been growing criticism of early decision on several fronts. One argument is that high school students should not have to choose their first-choice college by November. Another is that students who want to compare financial aid offers cannot afford to pick one college. Relatively few minority students apply early.

But early decisions help colleges lock in good students and raise the proportion of students chosen who enroll, which is seen as a barometer of selectivity. Many selective colleges fill a third to a half of their classes – or more – by December, leaving fewer spots for those who apply later. Typically, these colleges accept a higher proportion of early applicants than regular ones. So students like Margaret Farris of the University of Chicago Laboratory High School, who is applying early to the College of William and Mary, say they feel they must apply early.

In December 2001, Yale’s president, Richard C. Levin, called for changes to reduce the pressures on students, and Yale subsequently switched from early decision to early action. Other presidents say they would like to change, but feel they cannot unless other colleges do, too.

“I urge the selective colleges and universities to address this issue collectively,” said Anthony W. Marx, the president of Amherst College, which limits its early acceptances to 30 percent of its entering class.

He suggested that early decision be ended entirely, or that colleges that use it limit early acceptances. But other officials say early decision lets them draw students who really want to attend their colleges.

“It works out quite well, thank you,” said James Wright, the president of Dartmouth, where early applications rose 5 percent this year. Several other early decision colleges also saw little change this year, including the University of Pennsylvania, flat, Brown, up 1 percent, Cornell, up 1 percent, and Columbia, down 1 percent. At the University of Chicago, which has early action, early applications fell 17 percent.

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