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Early Admission Reject? Blame the Seven Sisters

Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, is a contributor to the Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter at @smihm.
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By now, thousands of U.S. high school seniors who applied for early decision from the university of their dreams have found out whether their hopes have been fulfilled -- or dashed. The unlucky now must not only swallow their disappointment but also start competing for admission at their second and third choice schools, which have already filled as much as half the available seats via their own early-decision programs.

Broken hearts aren't the only downside of early decision: A Bloomberg News report that looked at the numbers for this year showed that the system contributes to the college admissions arms race by disproportionately benefiting applicants who are white and privileged, if not alumni of those same top-ranked schools. 

So how did we get here?

In the first half the 20th century, admission to elite schools was a pretty straightforward affair. If you were the "right" kind of person, you applied to one school (maybe two) and you usually got accepted. (The fact that Dad went there often had something to do with this.) The process began the fall of senior year and the answer came back by May. Competition wasn’t fierce, even at the elite schools, unless you belonged to a group facing discriminatory quotas -- Jews, most famously.

By the 1950s, applications to colleges and universities increased across the board, thanks in part to government programs such as the GI Bill. As the number of prospective students increased faster than the number of slots, competition intensified to unprecedented levels. Worse, postwar parents began displaying a now familiar tendency to treat the admissions game as a form of competition for status, applying to multiple schools in search of multiple acceptances.

This created a huge headache for schools, which in the past had assumed that an applicant would come if accepted. Increasingly, admissions officers had a hard time predicting how many students would matriculate.

At first, elite schools sought to deal with the problem informally. As historians Elizabeth Duffy and Idana Goldberg have found, they tried to discourage the glut of applications by imposing fees. Then, by the mid-1950s, Williams and Yale began an informal program that was a forerunner of early decision, contacting superior applicants well in advance to let them know they had a slot (and encouraging them not to apply to less prestigious schools).

But the formalized early decision system we now know wasn't created by the elite schools for men; rather, it was the doing of a small circle of elite women’s colleges.

In the 1950s, growing numbers of women began setting their sights on top colleges. Unfortunately, as the number of female applicants shot higher, the number of top schools accepting women more or less remained the same.

Some elite schools let in women, but usually only in very small numbers. In the late 1950s, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology admitted almost 1,000 students annually, with 15 slots for women. Similarly, many of the most competitive liberal arts colleges were nominally co-ed, but often only allowed a tiny minority of female students on campus.

For most women, therefore, the obvious place to get a top-ranked degree was one of the so-called “Seven Sisters,” elite women’s colleges that were sometimes attached to an Ivy (Radcliffe and Barnard) or stand-alone institutions (Smith, Bryn Mawr, Vassar, Wellesley and Mount Holyoke). To increase their chances of admission, high-powered female applicants in the 1950s began applying to many or all the schools in the Seven Sisters cohort.

This quickly created a crisis for the admissions offices of the women's colleges. In response, they inaugurated the first formal, binding early decision admissions program in 1959. It was a resounding success, generating what Wellesley described as a “heartening decline” in the number of applications.

In the 1960s, other elite schools, emboldened by the Seven Sisters, introduced their own early-decision programs as a way to counter applicants’ tendency to apply to multiple top schools.

Oberlin may have been the first in 1961, followed by Amherst in 1962 and Williams in 1964. Each school that adopted early decision put pressure on others: schools that refused to follow the herd risked forfeiting their chance to attract the best applicants.

By the mid-1960s, early decision became entrenched, with the top schools admitting significant percentages of their incoming class via this method, making competition for the remaining seats far more intense.

To make matters worse, the adoption of early decision coincided with an eye-popping increase in college applications. This was driven in part by the postwar baby boom, but schools played a role, too, actively encouraging applications as they moved away from their genteel roots in their quest to become national, meritocratic institutions. Finally, a number of elite schools went co-ed in the 1960s and 1970s, effectively doubling the potential applicant pool.

The growing competition only made early decision more appealing to worried parents and their children. All that remained was for the process to gain some kind of statistical imprimatur. U.S. News and World Report, which in 1983 began publishing college rankings, accorded a small weight to the size of the “yield rate” -- the number of students admitted who actually enroll. Early decision was the simplest way to boost that metric.

While US News eventually dropped this component in its calculations, the damage had been done. In the last decade, early decision remains unchallenged as the most important, dramatic round in the blood sport of elite college admissions. Applicants and admissions offices use it to control the outcome of the college admissions game, even as both sides find themselves increasingly overwhelmed, exhausted, and frustrated.

It’s worth recalling the prescient words of Fred Copeland, director of admissions at Williams College in 1955. Early acceptances, he predicted that year, “will become the rule rather than the exception; the problem will be not to let it go too far.”

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Stephen Mihm at smihm1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net