Six Reasons to Keep Early Admission

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 19, 2006; 11:34 AM

Harvard University, the social queen of the world of college admissions, once again has everyone buzzing with its decision to defy fashion and stop using the early admissions system that many of the other colleges think is so cool. The Harvard administrators who did this are smart, humane and far-sighted educators who think the change will make the process fairer to low-income students. But I have been exchanging e-mails with many admissions experts who share my view that there are drawbacks for both rich and poor to making everybody wait until April for their acceptance or rejection letters, as Harvard will do for the high school class of 2008.

There are two principal forms of what people have come to call the early admission system. One is Early Decision (ED). The applicant applies in early November and promises to attend that college if she is accepted in December. The other approach is Early Action (EA), which is the same except the applicant who has been accepted is not committed to attend that school and can wait until April to see who else loves her.

Harvard has never used ED, although most of the other Ivy League colleges and many less selective schools do. Harvard is ending its EA program so its applicants will all have to apply by Jan. 1 and wait for their letters, or click on the Web site, on April 1. Princeton announced yesterday it will follow suit and get rid of its ED program next year. This might, if adopted widely, have, as we say inside the Beltway, adverse unintended consequences. Here are six reasons why these changes, if adopted widely, might make the college admissions worse for many students and colleges:

1. It relieves anxiety for the most anxious kids

Joan Goodman, school administrator at The New School of Northern Virginia in Fairfax County, said EA allows many seniors to put the stress of college applications behind them before Christmas. The students using EA or ED, she noted, are the ones most likely to be taking AP courses and pursuing outside activities and creating what is widespread concern about teenagers burning themselves out. So why not leave them this one angst reducer? Some EA or ED applicants must still suffer the news that they have been deferred (meaning their applications must wait for the regular decisions in the spring) or rejected, but at least they know how they look to their first choice and have time to apply to more schools.

2. It makes college campuses happier places

Lee Stetson, dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, often says that students who apply to Penn early are more likely to be admitted, and that is good because it means more students at Penn are attending their first choice school. Many other deans share his view. "Don't we all want to fill our schools with capable students who love us?" asked Monica C. Inzer, dean of admission and financial aid at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y.

3. It relieves stress for the most stressed admissions and high school counseling offices

"At a small school like ours, having some students apply early eases the January/February crush of transcripts and recommendations that need to be coordinated and sent out to colleges," said Goodman of The New School of Northern Virginia. Richard H. Shaw, Stanford's dean of undergraduate admission, said big, wealthy, selective schools like his and Harvard "can stand on their own two feet" no matter what admissions system they adopt, but less selective schools might be faced with "chaos" and "difficulty in predicting what is going to happen" after they send their letters out if they eliminate early admission programs. Handling many applications in November also cuts down on the winter and spring workload.

4. It makes sense for colleges that don't abuse the process

You can always make the disease go away by killing the patient, but why not try a few cures first? "There are many places who have been using ED in a reasonable and responsible way," said Debra Shaver, director of admission for Smith College in Northampton, Mass. More that a quarter of Smith students have family incomes low enough to qualify for Pell grants, a much higher percentage than at Harvard. Robert J. Massa, vice president for enrollment and college relations at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Penn., said it is not the early admission system that is the problem, but the way that some colleges and applicants use it. Educational consultant Eliot Applestein said that if Harvard really wanted to level the playing field, it could stop giving preference to the children of alumni.

5. It saves time and money by reducing the number of applications

Arlene Matthews, admissions adviser and author of the book "Getting In Without Freaking Out," said ending early admission would bring "an increase in the number of students who apply to 12, 15, or 20 schools, which in turn gluts the entire system and makes admission anywhere a statistically tougher proposition." Eventually those extra applications melt away, but not before many people have had to suffer in the purgatory of the wait list.

6. It gives low-income students, and their high schools, a needed incentive to start planning for college before the senior year

Many admissions experts say Harvard has done the right thing because eliminating early admissions reduces the advantage that middle-class kids have with their money and know-how to make the system work for them. Low-income students, for instance, prefer to wait to see which college gives them the best financial aid package, and that makes it difficult for them to commit themselves to one college in December.

Tish Peterson, co-director of college counseling at the Holton-Arms School in Bethesda, praised acting Harvard President Derek Bok and Harvard Admissions and Financial Aid Dean William R. Fitzsimmons. "Both men have long held that it should be the mission of universities to give equal access to students from disadvantaged and under-represented groups, and this move is certainly a step in the right direction," she said. Stephen Williams, a counselor at Eagle Rock High School in Los Angeles, said the Harvard move indicates "a strong realization that students without financing would be on the same field with wealthy students." Scott White, director of guidance at Montclair (N.J.) High School, said colleges have benefited financially from ED by "locking in full-pay kids" in December and the Harvard decision may shame them into acting differently.

But the financial aid problem could be solved by moving from ED to EA, or by working hard at ED schools to make sure financial packages were adequate. Removing early admission eliminates what has been a useful sharp stick for poking at high schools who don't do a very good job at college advising. Many bright high school students arrive in 12th grade without having taken the SAT or ACT, without having visited any campuses and without even having had a conversation with a counselor over what kinds of colleges interest them. Getting rid of the early admissions deadlines gives those high schools one more excuse to let junior year slide by with little effort to help those students.

I think the greater problem in admissions is not the one Harvard addressed, too many students allowed to apply too early, but the one many people are still ignoring, too many students starting to pay attention too late in the process. Getting rid of early admissions won't make it any easier to get into Harvard, which will still reject nine out of ten applicants. But it may make it more difficult for some students to get into college at all.

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