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As U-Va. hopefuls show, early admissions applications more popular than ever

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 27, 2010; 4:47 PM

The University of Virginia four years ago joined Harvard and Princeton in a much-publicized revolt against early-admissions policies that the schools termed unfair to some applicants. But the revolution never spread, and it now appears to be over.

U-Va. announced Nov. 16 that high school seniors may again apply early in 2012, though under a more flexible policy than before. Harvard officials said they are reconsidering early admission; Princeton officials said they are not.

The reversal reflects the remarkable popularity of early-admissions policies among applicants - and college admission officers - in an era when the collegiate sweepstakes is arguably more competitive and stressful than ever.

"For many students, we're their top choice. And frankly, they don't want to wait around," said Greg Roberts, dean of admission at U-Va.

Higher education leaders expected a shift in the admissions landscape when three of the nation's top national universities announced a retreat from early deadlines in 2006. Officials at the schools said they thought their programs favored the wealthy and well-prepared, and they invited other colleges to follow their lead.

Almost none did. Early admission endures at most of the selective public and private colleges in and around Washington. Early applications are up this fall for at least 10 schools in Washington, Maryland and Virginia. Applications are flat at a few institutions; no one is reporting a decline.

U-Va. ended its early-decision program after concluding it drew an inordinately privileged pool. Early-decision students pledge to attend one school and cannot compare other financial aid offers, a major drawback for disadvantaged students.

Of 200 low-income students who entered U-Va. in the final year of early decision, only one had applied early decision. "Those numbers were alarming to us," Roberts said.

Schools vary in their approaches to early admission: Early decision is binding, while early action is not. Both programs remain popular, admission officials say, because their benefits outweigh their drawbacks.

Most debate has centered on early decision, an option at about 18 percent of colleges nationwide and more common at selective schools, according to data from the National Association for College Admission Counseling. The binding contract appeals to institutions because it yields a student who is both enthusiastic and virtually certain to attend.

U-Va. will adopt early action, a program that leaves students free to shop around, eliminating the ethical dilemma of asking teenagers to commit irrevocably to one school. Roughly one-quarter of colleges offer early action.

Students and counselors across Virginia had clamored for U-Va. to return to early admissions, Roberts said.

On high school campuses in Northern Virginia, the return of early admissions to U-Va. is indeed a major development. Guidance counselors are particularly excited that U-Va. has chosen a non-binding program.

"We love early action, because it's like having your cake and eating it, too," said Cynthia Coogan, professional school counselor at McLean High School. "There's no downside to it."

Students flock to early-admission programs thinking - sometimes correctly - that they will have an easier time getting in. Early-admission rates are often higher. Some schools, including American University, expressly favor the early applicant.

"We want students who want us. The ultimate demonstration of interest is applying early decision," said Greg Grauman, director of admissions at AU. The school's early-decision program yielded 576 applications this year, a 7 percent increase.

Students like having an acceptance letter in hand by the holidays. It reduces stress heading into spring, and it can render further applications unnecessary.

"I firmly believe that many, many more families are interested in liberating themselves from the anxiety of having to wait until April 1," the traditional notification date for college admissions, said Gil Villanueva, dean of admission at the University of Richmond.

Applications are up 38 percent to 579 in Richmond's early-decision program, which promises an answer by mid-December to students who apply by Nov. 15 and pledge to attend. It's one of two early-decision cycles at the private liberal arts school.

Applications are up 9 percent to 6,615 in Georgetown University's early-action program, which promises a Dec. 15 response to an application submitted by Nov. 1. At the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, early action applications are up 12 percent to 3,381.

Harvard is reviewing its decision to eliminate early admissions - not in response to U-Va. but by its own timetable, which called for periodic reevaluation, officials said.

When the three schools adopted their stance against early admission, "the hope, for all three of us, was that more schools would join," Roberts said.

But most schools clung to early admissions. The programs can firm up as much as half of a college's entering class months ahead of schedule. Logistically, early deadlines allow overworked admission committees more time to read applications.

Locally, early-action programs remain at Georgetown, George Mason, James Madison and Loyola universities, among others, and early decision programs at American, George Washington, Howard and Johns Hopkins universities, as well as Virginia Tech and the College of William and Mary.

Early decision helps even highly selective schools improve their yield, the share of admitted students who choose to attend. It can infuse the campus with a "nucleus of young people who have a stake in the place," said William M. Hartog, dean of undergraduate admissions and financial aid at Washington and Lee University.

That wouldn't matter much at Harvard or Princeton, schools that are the automatic first choice of most who gain admission.

"If early decision was bad for Harvard, that was all they needed to say," Hartog said. "But for them to say that it was bad for all of us, that was just inaccurate."

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