One of Sally O'Rourke's students had received early decision acceptance to the College of the Holy Cross, then decided she could not afford to go -- breaking what the college considered a binding agreement.
The admissions director was furious, O'Rourke said, and made it clear that future early applications from her high school were in jeopardy.
Like many colleges, she said, Holy Cross assumed that she would act as an unpaid enforcer of its admissions rules. But like other counselors who have grown weary of a system they say benefits universities more than applicants, O'Rourke would have none of it.
"I am completely against the idea of policing this policy for colleges," she said last week while helping seniors at Andover High, a public school in Andover, Mass., prepare their paperwork.
Friday was the deadline for some colleges' early decision applications. Others give students until Nov. 15, but in all cases, the accelerated process has added to the strain on high school counselors and led some to speak out against it.
"Early decision is unfair to students who cannot afford to attend college just anywhere. It also disadvantages students from school systems, or schools, that are not as savvy about the entire application process," said Robyn Lady, a counselor at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County.
Students who apply to a college for early decision promise to attend that school if accepted. In return, the college promises to tell the students by mid-December if they have been accepted, rejected or deferred to the regular decision day, usually in late March or early April.
A few colleges use a different system, called early action, which gives applicants early notice but does not make them promise to attend.
In 2000, 14 percent of 1.2 million college applicants in the country submitted early applications, and about one-quarter of the 1,768 four-year colleges had such programs, according to the most recent data collected by the College Board.
But the most sought-after colleges almost all use early decision, and at some private high schools, as many as 70 percent of the seniors apply somewhere early.
In the past year, a few colleges -- including the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg -- have dropped early decision to ease the pressure on students and be more fair to those from low-income families, who need to wait for the best financial aid offer.
Yale University President Richard C. Levin has suggested that all Ivy League schools meet to discuss dropping early decision, and selective colleges have begun to bicker over rules governing the admissions process. The debate, some high school counselors say, has only increased the confusion and made it harder for them to advise students.
Arthur Smith, a counselor at Damascus High School in Montgomery County, said some high school educators and students mistakenly believe that a student who rejects an early decision offer -- as O'Rourke's student did with Holy Cross -- will be charged a year's tuition. Officials of the Alexandria-based National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) say they know of no such sanctions.
But students continue to trip over the uncertainties.
Scott White, a guidance counselor at Montclair High School in New Jersey, said one of his students wanted to apply to an early decision school and an early action school, even though the early action school said on its application that the student could not apply to both at the same time. White told the student to ignore that rule.
"I told him that this restriction was unenforceable and against the policy of NACAC, to which both the college and our school belong," White said. "I feel no obligation to adhere to policies which are not in line with these principles." The college took no action against White or the student, he said.
High school counselors acknowledge that early decision and early action programs help some students. David J. Hamilton, director of college counseling at Our Lady of Good Counsel High School in Wheaton, said, "If some students can clearly identify a college or university that is an academic fit, a social fit and a financial fit, then early decision is fine by me."
But many students believe that they will not get into a selective college if they do not apply somewhere early. Many counselors believe colleges encourage this fear for their own purposes, such as locking up the highest-achieving and most financially secure applicants before competitors lure them away.
Smith, at Damascus High, recalled a student who was happy to get into Princeton University early decision last year but received no financial aid because the binding agreement robbed him of any bargaining power. "Colleges with early decision know that the financial burden is now yours alone," Smith said.
This month, on their rare breaks for meals or conversation, high school counselors wearily counted up how many early decision recommendations they had written in recent days.
Lady, the counselor at Jefferson High, said that by Friday, she had written 39 letters of recommendation. "Some of my colleagues have written even more," she added.
The burden is particularly hard on public schools, O'Rourke said, a contrast obvious to her because her high-achieving public school is located near the famous boarding school Phillips Academy Andover. "The private schools have college counselors whose job is solely to work with this process," she said. "I am able to do very little college work in September, as the first two to four weeks are schedule changes, crises. . . . That leaves me October to get to know and write for all of my seniors applying somewhere early."
Early decision, counselors say, adds to that burden by imposing another layer of temptations and obstacles. Lady said she once discovered that a student had applied early decision to Cornell University and the University of Virginia, a violation of the rules. She found that her signature had been forged by the applicant's father on the extra application without the student knowing.
Lady said she straightened it out but wondered if such investigative work was really what she is paid for. "I do not think that it is my job to police the early action/early decision process," she said. "Students should be held responsible for their actions or, sadly enough, for the actions of their parents."