Yale, Stanford To End Early Decision Policy

Change could have domino effect, Harvard may poach early candidates

In policy changes that will transform college admissions, Yale and Stanford Universities independently announced yesterday that they are eliminating their Early Decision programs in favor of nonbinding Early Action starting with next fall’s admissions cycle.

The changes mean that Princeton is the last of the nation’s four most selective schools—Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford—to stick with Early Decision.

Harvard has never required its early admission candidates to commit to enroll.

Yale President Richard C. Levin and Stanford President John L. Hennessy cited similar reasons for abandoning Early Decision—arguing that the policy puts too much pressure on high school students to make a decision too early in their senior year.

“We have been deeply concerned about the tremendous pressures that talented young people face as they apply to colleges like Stanford,” Hennessy said. “This new policy offers those who have set their hearts on attending Stanford the opportunity to apply early in their senior year, without the additional pressure of having to commit before they are ready.”

Levin said Early Action makes the process more flexible for students.

“Early Decision programs help colleges more than applicants,” he said. “It is our hope to take pressure off students in the early cycle and restore a measure of reasoned choice to college admissions.”

Levin said last December that he thought Early Decision should be abolished, but that Yale’s ability to compete for students would be compromised if it unilaterally ended its binding admissions.

Stanford gave no public indication that it was considering eliminating Early Decision. Its Dean of Undergraduate Admission and Financial Aid Robin Mamlet said the university delayed its announcement until after this year’s Nov. 1 Early Admission deadline to avoid confusion.

Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers, who has criticized Early Decision in the past, praised Yale for giving applicants more options.

“Yale’s move to nonbinding early admissions is good news for college-bound seniors and the college admissions process,” he said. “Eliminating binding Early Decision makes the process less pressured and more open and fairer for more students.”

Ripple Effect

Admissions officials disagreed whether yesterday’s decisions would lead to an exodus from Early Decision.

Martin Wilder, a vice president at the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), said the decisions might push other schools to follow suit.

“It might well result in some institutions moving in a similar direction to discontinue the binding piece of early decision,” he said.

James M. Fallows ’70, whose 2001 Atlantic Monthly article “The Early Decision Racket” sparked much of the controversy over Early Decision, said he believed that the “trend of history” was moving against binding admissions.

“When the most prestigious schools say that this is something they don’t need, it may become seen as a tool of less prestigious schools,” he said. “There would be a shaming factor.”

But others suggested that it would be much more difficult for slightly less prestigious schools to abandon Early Decision, because their admissions yields would be likely to drop substantially.

“This is an incremental change,” said Stephen Singer, college counselor at the Horace Mann School in New York. “In and of itself, I don’t think it’s going to make a significant difference. But if it’s the first step in a series of steps that other institutions take, then you could look back on [these] decisions as being very pivotal.”

Yielding to Students

By exposing their early admits to the vagaries of the market, Yale and Stanford are opening themselves up to greater competitive pressures than they have faced in years, said Harvard Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67.

Three out of four students who get into both Yale and Harvard choose Harvard, according to Fitzsimmons.

“[Yale and Stanford] have done something that doesn’t appear to be in their institutional self interest,” Singer said, “and they’re willing to do it knowing that they may take some competitive hits. They should be applauded.”

Although Fitzsimmons said the changes might give Harvard access to more top candidates who previously would have been bound to attend Yale or Stanford, he lauded them for making decisions in the best interest of students.

“We lose [Early Action students] to them every year, now they will lose some to us,” he said. “But it’s a winning decision for students.”

The policy changes leave Princeton as the last of the four most selective schools to still have an Early Decision program. But Princeton’s Dean of Admissions Fred Hargadon said Princeton had no intention to change its policies. Moreover, he warned that the decisions might actually exacerbate the pressure on students by leading to additional growth in the total number of early applications.

“Absent any quid pro quo for seeking an early decision from colleges, I have no doubt that more and more students will be applying Early Action,” Hargadon wrote in an e-mail. “I don’t happen to think that’s a good idea, [but] I recognize that some colleges would simply welcome the resulting increase in their applications, regardless of how serious or well-thought-through such applications may be.”

Early Decision is attractive to colleges in part because locking in substantial portions of their applicant pool increases their yield, or ratio of admitted students to enrolled students, which factors prominently in the annual U.S. News & World Report college rankings.

Early Decision has also been criticized for privileging wealthy applicants who don’t need to compare financial aid offers from multiple colleges before making a decision.

Neither Stanford nor Yale mentioned this factor in their public statements, although Stanford Assistant Dean of Admission Marcela M. Muniz said that Stanford “considered how financial aid affects a student’s decision to consider other options within the whole scope of issues.”

An Attack on NACAC?

Although Yale and Stanford are no longer binding their early applicants to attend, they are prohibiting them from applying early to other colleges. By doing so, they are violating NACAC guidelines, which specify that students can file as many early applications as they want so long as they do not apply Early Decision to more than one college.

NACAC requires that its member colleges adhere to its definitions of Early Action and Early Decision to remain in the organization.

Princeton and Brown, which still offer Early Decision, also prohibit their early candidates from applying elsewhere, which has led to a standoff with the national association.

“[The new policies] would be in direct conflict with the NACAC statement of principles of good practice,” Wilder said, “and that is troubling and potentially an area of concern for the profession.”

Mamlet said Stanford had “hoped to enter into conversations with NACAC” about the issue, but went ahead with the announcement because it “was important to also signal our intent and to provide applicants and families with as much information as possible.”

The NACAC policy stipulating that students can apply to Early Action schools alongside an Early Decision school was instituted last fall and reaffirmed at the organization’s annual conference in Salt Lake City this September.

It was implemented this fall, which led many to speculate that Early Action colleges would see a substantial spike in applications.

Early Action applications were due Nov. 1, and Fitzsimmons said that it was “very clear that [Harvard] has a new record. We are well over 6,000 applications, which was where we were the last two years.”

Early Decision has come under increasing fire over the last two years. The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill abolished its Early Decision program last spring, and Harvard threatened to undermine the system this summer by letting students enroll who had been accepted elsewhere under Early Decision.

—Staff writer Dan Rosenheck can be reached at rosenhec@fas.harvard.edu.