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.