Early Derision

With Harvard backing down, the future of Early Decision lies in students’ hands.

When news broke in June that Harvard might allow students who had been accepted under other schools’ binding early decision programs to apply to and enroll at the College, admissions observers warned that the very future of early decision hung in the balance. Critics envisioned nightmare scenarios where massive numbers of students would double-cross colleges and guidance counselors would be forced to take sides between students and schools. Despite a spike in sentiment against early decision, where students promise to attend a first-choice school in exchange for a December admissions decision, no one wanted Harvard to unilaterally break the cartel.

After blistering criticism in the media, Harvard released a clarifying fact sheet in July telling students accepted under early decision at other schools that they had to withdraw all other applications. The furor died down, and the conversation about how to end early decision resumed with little reference to Harvard’s now-dead idea that could have dealt the fatal blow.

But the doomsday predictions may have been prematurely shelved. While Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 says Harvard intends to rescind the admission of students who try to break early decision commitments, carrying out that intention may be easier said than done. A number of routes still remain for both students and colleges to move away from early decision this year, and observers are certain the system will not emerge from this admissions season unchanged.

“People really don’t know what’s going to happen,” Fitzsimmons says. “Lots of people will see what happens and react accordingly. We’re going to have to make some decisions about next year.”

Not everyone is convinced that this year—or any year in the foreseeable future—will be early decision’s swan song. Many admissions officials at influential colleges are still devoted to early decision, and even if a consensus to abolish early decision did exist, a single collective action would potentially be treated as an antitrust violation. “It’s been too helpful to too many schools,” says Jacques Steinberg, author of The Gatekeepers, a new book on Wesleyan’s admissions process.

But early decision’s critics are confident the system’s days are numbered. “The larger picture,” says James M. Fallows ’70, whose Sept. 2001 Atlantic Monthly article “The Early Decision Racket” sparked much of the current debate about early decision, “is the terminal chaos spasms of the entire system. There are so many conflicting interests. In a year or two, we’ll reach a different equilibrium.”

Early Action on Early Decision

There were two seismic changes in the early decision landscape last year—one initiated by colleges, the other by students—and each offers a potential path toward a new system. On the college side, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill unilaterally terminated its early decision program last April. Earlier, Yale University President Richard Levin said Yale would eliminate its program if other Ivies did as well. The U.S. Department of Justice warned that such an action would invite antitrust scrutiny, and now Yale officials are considering going it alone anyway. If enough influential schools made independent decisions to go to nonbinding early action programs (such as Harvard’s) or get rid of early admissions altogether, it could have a domino effect on less selective schools.

A little-noticed policy change by the National Association of College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) last fall that required early decision schools to let students file simultaneous early action applications has cracked the door for students themselves to undermine the system. If enough high school seniors attempt to break their commitments, early decision colleges would scramble to fill unexpected holes in the class off of waitlists, and early action schools could be forced to retroactively rescind the equivalent of an entire dormitory. The ensuing chaos might convince colleges that early decision is no longer a tenable system. If students knew there would be no adverse consequences from breaking early decision commitments, they could simply treat early decision like early action, forcing the early decision schools to switch to a nonbinding policy.

The Case Against Early Decision

Early decision does offer potential advantages. If a student has a clear first choice in the fall of their senior year, then early decision is a good option—the student has the chance to be finished with the strenuous application process in December, and, if accepted, only has one application to fill out. If the student is deferred, the regular admissions process is no different than it would be had the student not applied early.

But there are a number of substantial drawbacks to early decision. The first involves the incentive system early decision creates. Most colleges take about twice as high a percentage of their early candidates as their regular ones—for example, the University of Pennsylvania accepted 39 percent of students who applied early decision last year and just 17.6 percent of regular applicants. Many schools say it is no easier to get in early decision than regular, arguing that the higher admit rate is due to the comparative strength of the early pool. Others say they are more likely to admit students who have identified their school as a first choice. But the numbers don’t lie, and the system encourages students who may not know exactly where they want to go to maximize their chances of admission by applying early decision anyway.

Parents and guidance counselors have also lamented the effect early decision has on high school students’ quality of life. To apply early decision, students must complete their college search process and identify a first choice by Nov. 1, instead of the regular decision timetable of completing the process by New Year’s Day and deciding where to go in May.

But the most serious criticisms revolve around issues of equity. Students who attend wealthy private schools are inevitably more aware of the early decision process and its competitive benefits than those students without access to well-connected college counselors. Moreover, and most significantly, students who apply early action or regular decision frequently inform every college to which they are admitted of their best financial aid offer in order to spark a bidding war. Schools concerned about their yield (the percentage of admitted students who enroll) frequently jump into the fray, substantially increasing candidates’ financial aid offers. Even without playing colleges against each other, regular decision and early action candidates can still compare the offers they receive and incorporate that information into their decision.