An Education In Cynicism

College admissions in America has become an overwrought and frenzied ritual, driven by the anxieties of striving students and middle-class parents who worry that if Stephen and Suzie don't get into the "right" college their lives will be ruined. This is a myth, but one hard to demolish and especially at this time of year, when most applications are being completed. Worse, all the pressures and absurdities of the process are now needlessly magnified by colleges that resort more and more to "early admissions"--a practice rightly characterized as a "racket" by writer James Fallows in a recent Atlantic Monthly.

The most selective colleges and universities sin the most. In the fall of 2000, there were about 1.2 million entering freshmen at four-year schools. Of these, only 163,004 applied for early admissions, according to the College Board. But Harvard routinely admits 55 to 60 percent of its freshman class early; at the University of Pennsylvania the proportion is 40 to 50 percent. The College Board found 41 schools where the share exceeded 30 percent and 464 four-year schools--a fourth of the total--that offered some sort of early admissions. (Early admissions means that students submit their applications before the standard January deadline and are typically admitted in December or January, rather than in the spring.)

Let us now count early admissions' drawbacks:

Sure, students accepted under early admissions benefit. Their ordeal is over. But in general, the practice has "adverse effects on high-school students," says Yale president Richard C. Levin. Although Yale now admits about 40 percent of its class through early decision, Levin has become an open (and rare) critic among college and university leaders. The problems and contradictions will multiply, because as more students and parents become aware of the advantages of applying early, more will do so. More early choices will be made with less conviction. Already, Yale's early applications have doubled since 1996. If colleges accept more early candidates, discrimination and premature senioritis will increase. If the rejection rate rises, so will gratuitous cruelty.

What motivates colleges and universities? Mainly self-interest that, at most, is only partially defensible. The University of Pennsylvania is one of the few schools candid enough to admit that it favors candidates who apply early. "The majority of students on campus at Penn are here because it's their first choice--that changes the tone of the campus," says Lee Stetson, dean of admissions. When he first came to Penn in 1978, only 35 to 40 percent of freshmen picked it as their first choice. "It's a whole different attitude," he says.

But there are other, less commendable reasons for using early admissions, as Fallows shows. It improves colleges' "yield" (the percentage of students accepted who actually attend). Because yield is one factor in U.S. News & World Report's annual college rankings, that can boost a school's position. Early admissions also improves "enrollment management"; it minimizes the chances that too many or too few students will show up in the fall. Finally, early admissions may allow colleges to attract more upper-middle-class students who don't need financial aid, though a recent College Board study disputes this. (The study found that freshmen, regardless of when admitted, got similar aid packages.)

All this expediency comes at a growing moral cost. Many colleges--including Harvard--contend that students who apply later do not reduce their personal odds of admission. This is almost certainly false, and colleges that maintain the fiction are being misleading and even dishonest. Bad show.

It is true that, compared with most social problems, the sins of early admissions are small potatoes. Most students will get over any disappointments, just as they will get over not being admitted to Dartmouth or Duke. But it is also true that, unlike most social problems, this one could actually be fixed. If a dozen or more top schools--Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Williams--denounced and dropped the practice, it would lose respectability and critical mass. If only one or two colleges do so, as Levin says, little would change.

What we have, for the moment, is the spectacle of some of America's most prestigious educational institutions engaged in behavior that can only be described as antisocial. They have subordinated students' interests to their own. This is hypocritical and indifferent to any larger social good. The message they're sending to students is, "Get used to it; this is the way the world works." Colleges might argue that they're providing something useful: an introductory course in cynicism. But no college has yet offered this defense, which would at least have the virtue of honesty.