The Early Decision Rebellion

Rance Barber, a 17-year-old senior at New Trier High School on Chicago's North Shore, seems like a perfect candidate to apply to Stanford University through its Early Decision program. Both parents are enthusiastic alumni (which makes him a "legacy," often an advantage for early applicants). And Stanford is a good fit academically since Barber wants to study engineering, one of Stanford's many strengths. But Barber's application was not one of about 2,400 that poured into Stanford's admissions office in the past few weeks. Despite pressure from school counselors to take advantage of his legacy status, Barber isn't ready to make the commitment to attend Stanford if he's accepted--a requirement under the school's binding Early Decision policy. Instead, he's working on regular-decision applications to Stanford, Cornell, Harvey Mudd, Northwestern and maybe Harvard. "I wanted to see other campuses, see what my options were," he says. An avid golfer and cocaptain of New Trier's team, he's also worried about getting a chance to play at Stanford, a Division I school. "There's nothing I would love better than for my son to go to Stanford," says his mother, Linda. But she backs Rance's choice to resist the Early Decision pressure.

A year from now, undecided seniors like Barber might feel a little less stress as they make their college choices. Last week both Stanford and Yale University announced that they would drop their binding Early Decision policies for the class of 2008 (now juniors in high school). It was the equivalent of a major earthquake in the hyperintense world of selective-college admissions, and aftershocks could follow if other schools make the same move. Over the past five years, Early Decision has become increasingly popular among applicants to top schools. This year's round is expected to be the most competitive ever, a significant source of anxiety for students, parents and counselors. Students feel compelled to "go early" or lose out--even if they're not sure about the schools they're applying to.

Some of the pressure comes from colleges that have been upfront about giving Early Decision applicants an edge. One study indicated that the advantage could be the equivalent of an extra 100 points on the SAT. Early Decision lets schools lock in students and increase their "yield," the percentage of accepted students who enroll. Many schools also say that early applicants are the most active on campus. But applying early means pushing up the college search to junior or even sophomore year. Critics also say it favors richer kids, who don't need to compare financial-aid packages from a number of schools.

The Early Decision rebellion has been brewing since last December, when Yale's president, Richard Levin, began speaking out about the pressures on students and families. Earlier this year three institutions--Beloit College in Wisconsin, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Mary Washington College in Virginia--announced that they were dropping Early Decision. UNC and Beloit switched this fall to Early Action (glossary), which isn't binding. But everyone was looking to see what Yale and other elite private schools would do. Levin says Yale waited until after this year's Nov. 1 early deadline to announce that it, too, would switch to Early Action. And a few hours after the news reached the West Coast, Stanford rushed out its Early Action announcement. Robin Mamlet, Stanford's admissions dean, said the choice had been made weeks earlier. "Even though I think Early Decision is a very responsible way to run part of your admission program," Mamlet says, "I think the [human] cost is too great right now."

According to a survey by the College Board, which runs the SATs, more than 67,000 students applied under Early Decision last year, compared with more than 41,000 in 1997. At some highly selective schools, students who apply in the regular admission cycle have as little as a 1 in 10 chance of getting in. Early Decision can dramatically increase their odds. But students who apply early for the wrong reasons can end up dissatisfied (sidebar).

Early Decision works best for students who have done lots of research and have clear reasons for their choice. That was the case with Courtney Meyers, a 21-year-old senior at the University of Pennsylvania. She knew she wanted to study business and was attracted by the stellar reputation of Penn's Wharton School. Still, she did have one brief moment of regret after she received her early acceptance. Although she withdrew her applications from all the other schools she applied to (required under Early Decision), her letter of retraction to Tulane was never processed. In the spring, she unexpectedly received an offer of a full scholarship. Penn's financial-aid offer was good, but it certainly wasn't a free ride. "I just thought about why I'd applied Early Decision to Penn and got myself back in that mind-set," she says. And she's never looked back. Her enthusiasm for the school is typical of early applicants, says Lee Stetson, Penn's admissions dean, and it's one reason why he intends to stick with the policy and will probably admit almost half the class early this year. "They tend to be more committed, more involved when they come to campus and then tend to graduate in a more orderly fashion," Stetson says.

Other schools that plan to keep Early Decision say getting rid of it isn't the only way to control it. At Dartmouth, admissions dean Karl Furstenberg says his policy is to cap the number of students admitted early at a third of the freshman class--which was also Stanford's policy. And Yale and Stanford have not completely eliminated the pressure on students. Both schools say they won't let Early Action applicants apply to more than one school in the early round. That's a violation of rules both schools agreed to as members of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), which sets standards for colleges. NACAC defines Early Action as nonrestrictive--which it is at top schools like the University of Chicago, Georgetown and Harvard. Students don't get the edge of Early Decision, but they get their letters by Christmas.

Both Yale and Stanford say that if more and more schools move to Early Action, the process could become overwhelming for schools. Instead of reading the bulk of their applications after January, they could end up with an unmanageable bulge in the fall when they're not prepared to handle it. "Our intent is not simply to give an earlier deadline for students to get their applications in to as many places as they want," says Mamlet. She says she had planned to discuss Stanford's restriction with NACAC before she went public but the Yale announcement forced the issue. Yale's Levin says he thinks ultimately NACAC may have to change. "It's a rule that makes sense in the current environment, where only a minority of the top schools have Early Action," he says. "Imagine if, in two years, this catches on and very few schools have binding Early Decision and most have Early Action. What you would have is people applying to five or six schools early. You would have just shifted everything that ought to happen in April to December." There's less of a downside for students, of course, as long as they don't mind starting all those essays immediately after Labor Day.

Any NACAC changes will probably be months away--if they happen at all, says Martin Wilder, NACAC's vice president for admission, counseling and enrollment practices. This year Harvard modified its Early Action policy, which kept applicants from applying for Early Decision elsewhere. Now, says Bill Fitzsimmons, Harvard's dean of admissions and financial aid, students who apply to Harvard Early Action can send in other early applications. Last week, as he applauded Yale and Stanford, Fitzsimmons prepared for the toughest part of his job--deciding who gets in. He expects to wade through nearly 6,000 early applications in the next month. "It's a very, very strong pool," he says. For all those nervous applicants, that's real pressure.