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.

By committing to early decision, students sacrifice any potential leverage, committing themselves to accept however much financial aid their early decision school offers. As a result, most students who cannot afford to pay for college out of pocket cannot apply early decision, while colleges fill up to half their classes before most financial aid candidates are even considered.

Early Decision Under Siege

Early decision programs grew dramatically in the 1990s, as they enabled colleges to simultaneously become harder to get into (since fewer spots were available for regular decision) and claim a higher yield (since early decision students yield at 100 percent), two crucial statistics in the hugely influential U.S. News & World Report rankings. As early decision’s influence increased, so did its critics.

The most notable was Fallows, whose Atlantic Monthly article sounded alarm bells about the effect early decision had on already-disadvantaged students.

According to Fitzsimmons, the Fallows piece sparked a wave of public pressure to reform the system. And colleges responded. In December, Levin, citing early decision’s adverse effects on applicants, told The New York Times, “If we all got rid of it, it would be a good thing.” At the time, Levin said that Yale would not proceed alone because, if it did, his university “would be seriously disadvantaged relative to other schools.”

In April, though, UNC-Chapel Hill did so anyway, telling the Times that the incentive early decision created to “game the system” made it counterproductive. Despite strong adherents at Columbia, Princeton and elsewhere, early decision was becoming a dirty phrase.

NACAC Attack

But despite the widespread ambivalence toward early decision, no one responded positively when news broke this June that Harvard was strongly considering making a move that might undermine it. When NACAC voted to allow early decision candidates to file simultaneous early action applications, it sent barely a ripple through the admissions world and none whatsoever in the national media—the decisive NACAC conference took place just one week after the Sept. 11 attacks and was weakly attended. But it had dire implications for the early decision system. Theoretically, early decision schools should have nothing to lose if their candidates also apply early action, since students are bound to their early decision school no matter what happens with their other applications. But the policy change undermined early decision’s primary enforcement mechanism.

Early decision commitments are practically impossible to enforce legally—they are an “honor-bound agreement” that “doesn’t have any legal standing,” according to Martin A. Wilder, vice president for admission, counseling and enrollment Practices at NACAC.

The system’s backbone has been provided by guidance counselors, whose relationships with colleges would be compromised if students backed out of their early decision commitments. The NACAC policy change—which survived last weekend’s national NACAC convention—removes counselors from this role, as sending out transcripts and recommendations to several schools early (as long as only one is early decision) will now be the norm. “We encourage kids to make choices and take responsibility for those choices, as long as the national association says it’s okay to do this,” says Stephen Singer, college counselor at the Horace Mann School in the Bronx, N.Y.

The only remaining method to keep students honest is for colleges themselves to police early decision contracts. But because they are prohibited from sharing information, they typically don’t know where else students are applying. “We don’t ask, and it’s rare that we even know,” says Marlyn McGrath Lewis ’70-’73, Harvard’s director of admissions. “We don’t check later. We want to operate on trust.”

Fitzsimmons believes the new policy will needlessly stretch Byerly Hall’s resources by creating a new class of Harvard applicants—students who are not eligible to enroll. Since Harvard has no way to know what other applications students have filed and is bound by its membership in NACAC to allow early decision candidates to apply, it will inevitably accept students who were also accepted at an early decision college. Fitzsimmons said in June that Harvard wasn’t sure how to handle these cases: Should it let the students enroll if they sought to break their commitment to another school? What if Harvard didn’t find out there was a commitment until the summer? Should it rescind acceptances?

As McGrath Lewis discussed these issues with the Standing Committee on Admissions and Financial Aid last spring, the connection between Harvard’s response to the NACAC policy and the future of early decision in general became apparent. There would be drastic implications at other elite schools if Harvard opened its gates to their early decision students. With college counselors now authorized by NACAC to send applications to as many early action schools as a student wanted alongside an early decision application, nothing could stop students accepted at early decision colleges from enrolling at Harvard. That would leave early decision schools scrambling for replacement students. Without guaranteed yields, waitlists would balloon and colleges would be more reluctant to give extra consideration to early candidates. In short, the entire system would likely collapse.

With an 80 percent yield (to Yale and Princeton’s early decision-inflated 65 percent), Harvard could take down early decision at elite schools all by itself. To many on the standing committee, this seemed like a good idea.

Committee member John E. Dowling, Cabot professor of the natural sciences, who declined to comment for this story, said in June that he supported the idea. “People aren’t happy with everything going on,” Dowling told The Crimson. “We’ve all been feeling we’d like to see Harvard exert leadership.”

According to committee member Steven C. Wofsy, Rotch professor of atmospheric and environmental science, there “wasn’t much dissension” on the committee about going ahead. “As far as I know, that honoring procedure is out the window for next year,” he said in June. Wofsy referred comment to McGrath Lewis for this story.

Despite the widely voiced qualms about early decision, Harvard took a beating in the media after the story broke. A College Board official called the idea “appalling” in the Boston Globe, and Penn’s dean of admissions told The New York Times he hoped Harvard would “see its way” to maintaining the status quo. Ironically, the same people that criticized early decision earlier took aim at Harvard for threatening the early decision system.

Despite Levin’s comments about early decision, Yale sent a stern message that having its admissions office undercut was not part of its vision of working toward a new early admissions system. “It is important to reach respectful consensus rather than take unilateral action,” said Richard Shaw, Yale’s dean of admissions.

Harvard’s administrators were livid at the coverage, especially since the first Boston Globe story on June 8 erroneously stated that Harvard had already decided to go ahead with the policy. Numerous professors and administrators said that the “apoplectic” reaction of other schools when the story came out limited Harvard’s options.

A former Faculty of Arts and Sciences official said he would have “hit the roof” had the controversy taken place while he was involved in the administration. “I would have encouraged retreat. We were getting bad press.”

The next month, Harvard issued an early action fact sheet stating that students accepted under early decision “must withdraw all other applications.” While the document did not explicitly warn that Harvard would rescind the admission of students who tried to break commitments, Fitzsimmons makes it clear that Harvard intends to do so.

“I think the controversy of the summer made people focus on the ‘must withdraw,’” he says. “We have rescinded our admissions in the past, and we will do so in the future.”

It seemed like a flip-flop, but administrators insist that the idea never got past the discussion phase. “The implication [in the media] was that there was some substantial lean, which was not accurate,” said University President Lawrence H. Summers. “It was a new question that presented itself that hadn’t been addressed before.” McGrath Lewis went even further, saying, “There wasn’t a lot of support for allowing people to lie [to their early decision school] to gain an advantage.” (why is this in past tense?)

Once the fact sheet was released, the issue was laid to rest in the press. But in fact, most of the questions raised by the potential Harvard situation remain alive and are likely to be tested in the first year of the new NACAC system.

Chaos Theory

Harvard has decided it doesn’t want students who break commitments. But keeping them out may not be as easy as just saying no.

If a student applies early decision to Yale and early action to Harvard and is accepted by both, she could try to choose Harvard and send in her check. When Yale realizes she is not planning to attend—either by notification or because it never gets a deposit—Yale contacts her high school’s guidance counselor, who informs them that she is headed for Cambridge. Yale then contacts Harvard to inform Harvard about the early decision commitment.

Theoretically, according to Fitzsimmons, Harvard would rescind her admission. She would likely be unwelcome at Yale as well, and her case would send a strong message about the seriousness of the early decision pact.

But what if there were 50 cases like this at each school out of an early decision group of 500 or 600? Could Harvard realistically rescind such a substantial proportion of its class at such a late date? If not, the scenario would be no different than the doomsday predictions flying around in June. And after a chaotic year, early decision schools would be forced to abandon their programs. If only a few students attempt to renege, they are likely to suffer. But if enough do, the system would fall apart.

Another possibility in this scenario is that a student who seeks to break an early commitment and is rescinded by Harvard could sue the University. According to Fallows, concerns about antitrust suits were a major factor in Harvard’s admissions committee discussions last spring.

The solution Harvard hit upon was to emphasize the priority it places on students behaving honorably—which professors and admissions officials say really did provide a potential legal escape route and tip the balance against letting students break commitments.

“This goes beyond legal considerations,” Fitzsimmons says. “It’s an issue of character...If we rescind someone, it’s not to enforce an early decision with which we disagree.”

According to Professor of Law Einer R. Elhauge, this defense would be likely to hold up in court, limiting the legal options for attacking early decision. “Just because early decision is not contractually binding on the student, that doesn’t mean other people can’t take it into account,” he said. “If you promise to take me out to dinner, [that’s] not legally binding, but you can’t sue me if you don’t come and I never talk to you again. People are entitled to make their own inferences when people break agreements.”

All Eyes On Princeton

Even if students don’t wind up challenging the system, the pressure on colleges to eliminate early decision continues to build: For example, Yale is likely to announce a yet-unspecified policy change in the next few weeks, and Princeton is approaching a crossroads in its admissions policy as well.

Princeton’s Dean of Admissions Fred Hargadon is a longtime supporter of early decision—he has piloted Princeton on a crash course with NACAC by requiring that its early decision applicants file no early action applications, a decision that could result in Princeton’s expulsion from the organization. But Hargadon is retiring after this year, giving Princeton’s president, Shirley M. Tilghman, the opportunity to appoint a dean whose view on early decision could be different than Hargadon’s. And Tilghman has demonstrated sensitivity to the inequalities that can be created by seemingly neutral policies—she has discussed reforming one of academia’s sacred cows, the tenure system, because of the challenges it poses to women who want to raise families.

In the Princeton Alumni Weekly last February, Tilghman wrote an article defending Princeton’s adherence to early decision. “The ultimate test of any admission process for Princeton is whether it is fair and equitable to our applicants and whether it allows the University to enroll the strongest possible class,” she wrote. “In our experience, a carefully administered early decision program meets this test.”

But it’s hard to imagine Tilghman saying anything negative about early decision while Hargadon remained in charge. If nothing changes this year—either by a Yale policy change, large numbers of students breaking commitments, or a successful legal assault—Tilghman could, if she were so inclined, take the lead in eliminating early decision. If Princeton announced it was moving to early action or getting rid of early admissions altogether, Yale would surely follow. And if the so-called “Big Three” schools were all early action, the next tier of selective schools—the ones who derive the greatest benefit from early decision—would be hard-pressed to continue with the system. There would be little incentive for students to bind themselves to a “second-tier” school if they could apply early to Harvard, Princeton and Yale, and still keep all their options open for regular decision.

“The key decision rests with the leaders of universities like Princeton and Brown,” said Dean of Undergraduate Education and admissions committee member Benedict H. Gross ’71. “There’s nothing for Harvard to do at this point except sit and wait.”

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