Education: The Gettin' In Game

For high-school seniors, 2003 was to be the year that restored sanity to college admissions. Three elites--Stanford, Harvard and Yale--reformed their early-application rules in response to growing criticism over binding Early Decision (ED), which lets students learn their fate in December, not April. The problem is, students must attend if accepted. But critics say ED puts too much pressure on students to make an early choice; it also hurts poorer kids, who need to compare aid offers.

Yale president Richard Levin announced a year ago that Yale would switch to a nonbinding Early Action (EA) plan this past fall. Under EA, students hear in December, but they can still apply to other schools and decide where to go in the spring. Stanford followed. (Both schools require applicants to apply early to only one school.) In the spring, Harvard put a similar restriction on its longstanding EA plan. The end result was a decline in early applications to Harvard, and an increase at Stanford and Yale.

It's not clear these reforms will lead to change. Relatively few students apply early to Harvard, Yale and Stanford; schools like Princeton have no plans to switch from ED. But the biggest concern is demographic. The number of high- school seniors will rise to a projected 3.2 million by 2008, while the number of spots at top schools won't budge. Stress, it seems, will be as much a part of senior year as the prom.