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Too late for early: the "early something" admission process is crumbling, and rolling is the way to go. (The Admissions Angle).

As with most aspects of college admission, if you get tired of--or even just get used to--the ways things are, you need only wait a few years and they will change. So it's no surprise that changes are afoot again in college admission plans, which will directly affect the ways institutions find, recruit, and convert admission prospects. In this case, the tremors we have been feeling in the world of "early something" admission have begun to produce cracks that could bring down the whole current infrastructure.

At a New England Association for College Admission Counseling (NEACAC) annual meeting in Connecticut, we recently heard no viable defense of early decision (ED) as it stands. In fact, James Fallows (author of a much-publicized Atlantic Monthly cover story on the early decision hustle, "The Early-Decision Racket," September 2001), Bill Fitzsimmons (dean of Admission at Harvard), and numerous college admission and secondary school guidance representatives essentially agreed that early programs as they now exist are substantially different in mission and practice than when implemented in the '60s and '70s. Early plans were intended to allow the most motivated and talented students to indicate early interest in a top college choice, thus making their senior year easier (a plus for the kids), and simultaneously taking them out of the broader admission pool, making it easier for admissions officers to read the remainder of the "normal" applications (a plus for harried recruiters).

Many plans were initially adopted as early action (EA) plans, meaning that they were nonbinding on applicants. While the majority of students who were accepted EA tended to enroll, they comprised only 10 to 15 percent of a college's incoming class. Over the last two decades--and especially the last two years--most colleges switched to or adopted binding ED plans, which allow students to apply to only one ED school at a time, and commit to going there if admitted. Princeton, Yale, Northwestern, and, last year, Brown, all switched to binding programs to lock in those top candidates. The ED/EA pools have simultaneously risen to 25 to 45 percent of the admitted pool at many of the selective colleges.

To most, the trend toward ED has seemed irreversible and ever increasing. The benefits to colleges in terms of higher yield predictability, higher selectivity, and higher rankings are clear. Conversion of prospects, then, would seem logically connected to pushing the ED plan--telling students directly (or implying) that ED I (in the fall) or ED II (a second deadline in January) means a greater chance for admission. In this way, a school can lock in its fair share of the market, even if some of those ED admits have lower numbers or would have been more likely to have been admitted anyway, due to legacy or athletic recruit status.

But, the tremors have been intensifying. Students and parents have become more nervous, certain that they must apply "early something" just to have a chance. The impact of this on students trying to achieve the right college match is difficult to measure, but anecdotally we see a number of ED committers who live to regret their choice, at some stage. The confusion and hurt feelings concomitant with the ED pressure also have the potential to negatively impact a school's reputation and image in the larger community. Counselors have become more cynical and upset about ED and college admissions, feeling that the "gaming" of the system is worsening, thereby negatively affecting their ability to advise families effectively. What's more, the inconsistencies between what colleges soy and what actually happens during the decision process have become more transparent, and the discrepancies between candidates admitted under various plans for different reasons seem unreasonable and not quite understandable.

To further complicate things, the future of ED has recently been called into question. Not all schools have moved toward adopting ED. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has, in fact, dropped the ED plan again (it had one in the '60s which it dropped in the '70s, reinstituting it again in 2000). In the university's decision to drop the program, UNC noted ED's lack of fairness, the pressures on candidates, and the ED pool's higher income levels and lower diversity numbers. Echoing President Richard Levin of Yale, who raised serious questions about ED earlier in the year, UNC Chancellor James Moeser expressed concern over "a national climate that is increasingly questioning the legitimacy of early decision."

Another chink in the wall is the recent rule change in the National Association for College Admission Counseling's (NACAC) standards of practice for admission plans, which now will not allow colleges with EA plans to in any way restrict students' applications to other colleges. Interpreting the rule change literally, Harvard has just announced that it will allow its EA applicants to apply to another college under an ED plan (EA plans were previously okayed), a move that the university formerly prohibited. Harvard has now made it clear that it will abide by the current college policy (or courtesy) of not allowing a student to enroll at Harvard if he or she has been accepted to another college.

There could be chaos looming, says Fitzsimmons, as the mortar that binds the ED system--student commitment, college willingness to recognize that commitment to other institutions, counselor willingness to play the game, student and parent willingness to play fair--begins to crack. And according to Fallows, there really is no defensible argument for ED. From his perspective, the politics are not in favor of this policy, and the voters (the applicants and parents) have more power than the relatively small group of collegiate institutions currently making the rules. The next meeting of Ivy League leaders could finally set major changes in place.

What is to be done? as Lenin's famous question goes.

We think the rolling admission model is a good one, since it allows a) students to apply to colleges when they are ready, and b) institutions to predict applications and yield as candidates and commitments come in the door. This is the system in place in a large number of institutions across the country, and there are lessons to be learned there for the selective private and public colleges that have either come to rely on ED significantly, or are currently considering moving to ED to better their numbers. The reality on the street is that kids are more stressed than ever by ED and its pushing back of the college process well into junior year. Some college officials continue to maintain that ED is great for students because it allows them to try one application and, if they get in, avoid doing too many others. But this is certainly not the case for most students, who must still complete all the rest of their applications prior to hearing back from an ED college December 15 if they are to have any chance at all of producing a good application before a January 1 or 15 deadline, or garnering an alumni interview. That means that the cost of application fees and the time spent on administrative procedures and writing still remain very high.

Given the current turmoil in admissions programs, what are the implications for colleges hoping to convert more good prospects? First, don't plan on relying on the ED strategy for too much longer. We are fast be approaching a tipping point, on the other side of which ED will not exist. Second, focus on other more traditional yield arguments (see our article, "Influencing Yield," July/August UB) prior to the beginning of the recruiting process. Look to recruit more solid, appropriate kids who are likely to be interested in your institution. Third, re-emphasize the on-campus interview. Getting students to campus, providing them with a meaningful experience, and allowing them the opportunity to meet personally with an experienced admissions professional can make a great deal of difference in attracting applicants, influencing their decision to apply, improving the discussion of their application, and persuading them to enroll once they are admitted. Yes, there will be a cost in terms of admissions officers' time and resources, but it will be welt worth it, in the long run.

Howard Greene and Matthew Greene (www.greenesguide.com) ore independent education consultants, end the authors of the Greenes' Guides to Educational Planning.
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Author:Greene, Matthew
Publication:University Business
Date:Sep 1, 2002
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