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

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.

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