Princeton, Brown In Clash Over Admissions Rules

National association could expel schools over early admission policies

In conflict with national guidelines, Princeton and Brown Universities are refusing to allow their Early Decision applicants to file simultaneous Early Action applications to other schools for the upcoming admissions season.

Their policies have set up a showdown between the two colleges and the professional organization that establishes those guidelines, the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), that could result in their expulsion from the group.

The disagreement stems from a policy change instituted at NACAC’s sparsely attended convention in San Antonio one week after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when members voted to allow students applying under binding Early Decision programs at one college to file as many nonbinding Early Action applications as they wished. Although students would still be required to enroll at their Early Decision school if accepted, they could attend an Early Action school that admitted them if they did not get into their Early Decision college.

But Princeton’s and Brown’s admissions materials tell prospective applicants that they may not submit any other early applications—including nonbinding Early Action ones—if they choose to apply there under Early Decision.

By accepting membership in NACAC, colleges agree to abide by the organization’s policies including its definitions of Early Decision and Early Action, according to Martin A. Wilder, NACAC’s Vice President for Admission, Counseling, and Enrollment Practices. Continued noncompliance can result in expulsion from NACAC, which Wilder said the association has not done in 20 years to his knowledge.

Neither Princeton Dean of Admissions Fred Hargadon nor NACAC leadership appear willing to move on the issue. Brown’s Director of Admissions, Michael Goldberger, is traveling and could not be reached for comment.

“As a matter of principle I do not think it appropriate for a college to cede responsibility for setting its application requirements to NACAC,” Hargadon wrote in an e-mail.

“As I have discussed with the NACAC leadership, I cannot in good conscience cede to them the authority to dictate Princeton’s application requirements.”

One official close to NACAC leadership said the organization was frustrated by Princeton’s recalcitrance.

“[NACAC has] gone toe to toe with Princeton a couple rounds in fact, and [Princeton is] die-hard,” he said. “They’re resistant to making a modification there.”

Who’s Holding the Cards?

NACAC’s annual conference begins in Salt Lake City this week, and Wilder said it is possible that the organization might change the policy once again to defuse the situation. But if the two sides cannot resolve their disagreement, it’s unclear which would be hurt more.

Harvard’s Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, William R. Fitzsimmons ’67, stressed that even prestigious Ivy League colleges reap substantial benefits from NACAC membership beyond the chance to participate in college fairs. The annual regional and national meetings, he said, are important opportunities for colleges to “build up trust and credibility” with secondary school guidance counselors, especially those from areas of the country that have not traditionally sent many students to selective Northeastern universities.

And Wilder cautioned that any college asked to leave NACAC might be branded a black sheep among colleagues.

“[Explusion] would not be positive for an institution’s image among the community of professionals,” he said.

But guidance counselors at some of the elite schools that serve as “feeders” to the Ivy League expressed skepticism that NACAC would actually expel Princeton or Brown for refusing to comply. Moreover, they warn, if the organization did so, it might be paving the road to its own irrelevance.

“The balance of power is clearly held by the colleges,” said Stephen Singer, the head college counselor at Horace Mann School in the Bronx. “They have the thing that all the kids want, and that’s the admit letter. If being admitted is an important thing, if people care about being admitted, then what difference does it make to Princeton and Brown’s daily existence that they are not a member of the national association?”

Bruce Breimer, the college counselor at New York City’s Collegiate School, said that NACAC could not afford to follow through with expulsion.

“NACAC needs them a hell of a lot more than they need NACAC,” he said. “If it’s a blinking match, I’ll tell you who will blink first. [NACAC membership] is not considered to be the Holy Grail. There’s talk that a lot of colleges are going to pull out.”

Counselors On the Spot

As long as the standoff continues, it is up to college counselors to determine whose policies will be instituted and how they will be enforced.

Since a federal ruling 10 years ago prevented Ivy League colleges from sharing financial aid information about prospective students, admissions offices do not usually know if their applicants have also sought admission elsewhere.

The primary enforcement of early decision agreements has historically been undertaken by guidance counselors, who can refuse to send transcripts or recommendations to schools besides the Early Decision school.

Prohibiting students from filing simultaneous early applications helps to avoid situations where a student breaks an early commitment but the school to which they are bound does not find out until they fail to receive a deposit.

But the disagreement between NACAC and Princeton and Brown puts counselors in the awkward position of choosing a side in the dispute when confronted with a student who wishes to apply early to either Brown or Princeton as well as an Early Action school such as Harvard or MIT.

Breimer said that Collegiate has always limited its students to one early application, while Singer said that Horace Mann will allow its students to apply early to multiple schools—as long as one of them is not Princeton or Brown.

But effectively siding with the colleges—and protecting their relationship with admissions offices—might put counselors at legal risk, according to James M. Fallows ’70, whose Atlantic Monthly article “The Early Decision Racket” sparked much of the controversy over early programs last year.

Fallows, who is also a Crimson editor, cautioned that students who wished to file multiple applications might file suit arguing that counselors are colluding with colleges to illegally restrict their options.

An Absentee Conference

Many admissions officers and counselors have expressed frustration both with the new NACAC guidelines’ potential effects and the manner in which they were instituted.

The decision to let Early Decision applicants file simultaneous Early Action applications was made at NACAC’s national conference, which received little media attention and was poorly attended due to the terrorist attacks one week beforehand.

“Attendance was far from what it normally is,” Fitzsimmons said. “If they’d had a full membership there, there could well have been a different outcome.

“In the spring,” he said, “I kept running into people who were very well placed in college admissions who hadn’t heard about it or were unclear that it was being implemented for this year.”

According to Singer, the voting was influenced by the absence of many representatives of the elite Northeastern high schools and colleges most affected by Early Decision policies, resulting in what Breimer called an “absentee conference.”

With fewer of those voices present, Singer said, the “deeply felt attitudes about making a maximum amount of options for students” prevalent in other parts of the country were more influential.

Now, however, opposition to the policy is widespread among Ivy League admissions officials and prep school college counselors who say that it will further inflate the number of early applications.

“I believe that the new NACAC policy, as well as the policies of many colleges and secondary schools, actually promote more, not fewer, early applications,” Hargadon wrote. “Nor do I think it a great idea for my colleagues in other colleges to be spending valuable time reviewing applications of Early Action candidates who, unbenownst to them, are already committed to attend, if admitted, an Early Decision college to which the have also applied.”

Fitzsimmons said that although Harvard is complying with the new definitions, it opposed the policy at the conference last fall.

“A lot of trouble is put into Early Action for those people who have not made a commitment elsewhere,” Fitzsimmons said. “We don’t want another huge increase, especially from people who aren’t eligible to come here.”

In response to the new definitions, Harvard was strongly considering the possibility of letting students who were admitted elsewhere under Early Decision school matriculate at Harvard if they chose to break their commitment to another school, numerous members of the Standing Committee on Admissions and Financial Aid said last spring.

Had Harvard followed through with the policy, it would have created havoc for its competitors—including Princeton and Brown—who would have no way of stopping students they were counting on enrolling from changing their minds and going to Harvard.

Brown had shifted from Early Action to Early Decision the year before, after a substantial portion of students it accepted under Early Action chose other schools. Preventing applicants from filing simultaneous Early Action applications would have protected Princeton and Brown from the threat of losing students they accepted early to Harvard. According to Fitzsimmons, around three-quarters of students who are admitted to both Harvard and a top competitor chose Harvard.

Harvard clarified its policy over the summer to stipulate that students who are applying to an Early Decision college “must with draw from Harvard (and all other colleges) once admitted.”

No Way Out

The obvious route out of the stalemate is for NACAC to change its policies again at this week’s conference. Wilder said Early Decision and Early Action policies are likely to be reviewed in detail and that many options are up for consideration, including limiting all students to one early application.

“I can assure you that the ED/EA issues that were very much active in our discussions last year will likewise be a very big topic for discussion this year,” Wilder said. “These issues will be put before the assembly in some motions. There’s always the possibility something could be changed.”

The other potential resolution would come from Princeton’s side. Hargadon released a statement at a press conference this summer saying he plans to step down after this year. His successor will have the opportunity to reformulate Princeton’s stance on the issue if the central administration does not intervene.

If the showdown does reach a critical point and Princeton and Brown are expelled, it might prompt a reevaluation of the entire Early Decision system, according to Fallows.

“There would have to be some transition, because in the long run, Princeton and Brown will have to be included,” said Fallows. “They won’t be labelled as rogue states. It will signal that there’s a real difference of opinion on this, that it’s a problem to be addressed or solved.”

But if nothing changes on either end, Fitzsimmons said, the issue may expand far beyond Princeton and Brown depending on the results of this year’s admissions season.

“Each institution in the end has to decide what is going to be best for their future student body and their institution,” he said. “We will have to step back and see if this new rule is serving students generally. Does it make sense for a student to apply to 15 Early Action schools along with an Early Decision school? People really don’t know what’s going to happen.”

For this year at least, there are no indications of movement towards a stable solution to the issue.

“In the end, students have a choice,” Hargadon wrote. “After all, if they wish to file multiple early applications, there are plenty of excellent institutions where they are welcome to do just that.”

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