Commentary: Second Thoughts on Early Decision

The program is due for an overhaul

By William C. Symonds

Getting into a prestigious college has always been stressful. But the nation's top institutions have made it even worse by relying more and more on binding early decision. That's a program under which high school seniors apply to their first-choice college in the fall, and then--if accepted, usually in December--must enroll the following autumn. Yale University filled a record 40% of the 2002 freshman class through early decision, and at some of the 270 institutions that offer it, more than half the first-year students come through this door.

Even many college admissions professionals admit they've created a monster. "The early-decision process is entirely out of control," says John Katzman, chief executive of Princeton Review, which helps students prep for SAT tests. "It puts too much pressure on students to come to a quick decision," adds Yale President Richard Levin, who helped spark a debate when he said late last year that the practice should be ended.

Levin is right on target, but he faces an uphill battle. Research shows that students' chances of being accepted at the best colleges are better if they apply early. So as long as the system confers some advantage, parents and students aren't likely to revolt. And as long as some big-name schools offer early admissions, the others feel they must, too, or risk losing out on the best talent. "I hate to admit it, but you'd be crazy not to apply early," says Tom Parker, dean of admissions at Amherst College.

Still, the process needs an overhaul. Charles Deacon, dean of admissions at Georgetown University in Washington, says that early decision made sense when it was "reserved for a small number of the very top kids." But at many private and top-notch public high schools, at least half of the seniors now apply early. Nevertheless, says Martin Wilder, vice-president for enrollment at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Va., "after 25 years in admissions, I know that most students are simply not ready to make this kind of ironclad commitment to a college so early in the senior year." The hysteria raises the odds a student will make a poor choice. Take 20-year-old Brian Chiger from Westfield, N.J. He sent in an early-decision application to the University of Pennsylvania in 1999, "since I felt it was a good way to get into a school that was a stretch for me." He was thrilled when accepted. But after arriving at Penn, he grew to hate its "cutthroat and individualistic" culture. Chiger transferred to the University of Rochester, where he's far happier. Of course, waiting until spring doesn't preclude a bad decision, but it does give students more time to think things over--and more choices.

Another problem: Early decision undermines the diversity these competitive colleges claim they want. Like most other experts, William Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions at Harvard College, says early decision isn't advisable for those who need financial aid. "It is terribly important for them to review a number of offers," he says, since the aid packages can vary widely. The result, says Amherst's Parker, is that early decision "blatantly favors the most sophisticated kids" from rich families.

To his credit, Yale's Levin backs a system where all students would apply in the middle of their senior year and choose among the colleges that accepted them in the spring. Alternatively, binding early decision could be replaced by the kind of early-action programs now offered by Harvard and Georgetown. Students are accepted in December but can wait until May to make a decision. Either reform would increase the odds that students will find the college that's best for them.

Boston Bureau Chief Symonds covers educational issues.

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