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July 6, 2011

Vol. 111, No. 15

Features

In college admissions, Princeton decided it couldn’t stand alone: Early admission, take two

By Jeffrey R. Young ’95
Published in the July 6, 2011, issue


Photo: Aaron Graubar/Digital Vision/Jupiter Images; Photo alteration: Steven Veach


Dennis Reynolds, a guidance counselor at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Md., in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., increasingly has been having conversations with students that make him uncomfortable. Take one student who walked into Reynolds’ office recently and asked for advice on applying to college early — having heard that, statistically, it is easier to get into top schools during the early-admission cycle than during the regular round.  

“Her question to me was, to which one of these should I apply early to maximize my chances?” Reynolds recalls. That’s a line of inquiry that raises red flags with most counselors, since it treats a college acceptance as a trophy to win, rather than a matchup of a student with an environment where he or she would thrive. In this case, the counselor responded to the student with a question of his own. “My question to her was, which one would you want to attend should the decision come back positive?” Reynolds says.

Today, many students view college admissions “as a game or a strategy they could use,” Reynolds says. That’s exactly the kind of gamesmanship Princeton had hoped to stop when it decided in 2006 to end the early-admission program for the class entering in 2008, along with Harvard University and the University of Virginia. President Tilghman worried then about the growing “frenzy” of the college-application process and feared that the early system was unfair to low-income students who did not have complete information about the benefits or felt that it prevented them from shopping for the best financial-aid package. The rejection of an early deadline by three of the nation’s most selective universities was hailed at the time by many high school admission counselors as a bold and selfless step that could put the institutions at a competitive disadvantage to make a principled stand.

The hope was to start a trend — what could be called the Slow Application Movement — in college admissions. Some speculated that Yale would follow suit, since its president, Richard C. Levin, had started a nationwide debate about early admissions in 2001 when he criticized the practice and said higher education would be better off without it. Others looked to Stanford, which revised its early-admission option in 2002 to make it less restrictive. Perhaps early-admission policies around the country would fall like dominoes.  

It was not to be. Rather than following Harvard’s and Princeton’s lead and eliminating early programs, colleges around the country have expanded them, filling more of their classes with early birds. More than 74 percent of U.S. colleges with early-application options reported an increase in demand for them, and early applicants were filling larger portions of incoming classes, according to a national survey by the National Association for College Admission Counsel­ing conducted in 2009, the most recent data available.  

And so this spring the short-lived Slow Application Movement came to an end. Princeton reversed course, reinstating an early-admission program — this time, a nonbinding early-action program instead of the binding early-decision program it used in the recent past — a few months after U. Va restored its early option, and just hours after Harvard did the same.  

What happened? And where does this leave today’s students and parents?  

The student who had heard that acceptance rates are higher during the early-admission period was right, though experts differ on why that is. At Princeton, the admission rate for early applicants to the Class of 2011, the last class admitted before Princeton returned to a single-deadline process, was 26.8 percent, compared to a measly 7.2 percent for applicants in the regular pool. Even before students in the regular pool were admitted, nearly half the openings in the class — 48 percent — had been filled, a figure that had remained fairly consistent for several years. (Under the early-action system adopted this year, Dean of Admission Janet Rapelye told PAW in March, “My hope is that [this portion of the class] can be less than what it was — that we’re able to take some students early but that we have as many places as possible when we get to regular decision.”)

Former Dean of Admission Fred Hargadon told The New York Times in 1996 that the reason for the higher acceptance rate was simple: The early pool was stronger. Yet a 2004 book, using information supplied by Princeton and other selective universities, found no evidence of that. Instead, the book, The Early Admissions Game: Joining the Elite, found that at schools using a binding early-decision process, as Princeton did at the time, early applicants had slightly lower SAT scores “and slightly less impressive extracurricular records” than candidates in the regular pool. And among these schools, the authors concluded, Princeton stood out. The authors wrote: “The implication is clear: If you want to be a Princeton Tiger, apply early.” In contrast, among the most selective schools with nonbinding early-action programs, the early pool was indeed stronger.

Announcing the move to a single deadline in September 2006, Tilghman noted that a single-admission process was “necessary to ensure equity for all applicants.” Student diversity was one metric University officials hoped to improve, in part by increasing recruitment efforts during weeks when other colleges were reviewing early applications. That aspect of the experiment succeeded, no doubt bolstered by Prince­ton’s generous financial-aid program: The Class of 2014 has the largest number of students from minority backgrounds in Princeton’s history, and nearly 11 percent are the first in their families to go to college.  

But at the same time, Princeton’s yield rate fell — in other words, more students who heard a hearty “Yes” from Prince­ton replied with a “No, thanks” — because the University lost a key tool for gauging how interested those applicants were in Old Nassau. The yield for Princeton’s Class of 2011, the last one to have an early-admission offer, was 68 percent. For the Class of 2014, after three years without an early option, the yield had fallen to 56.9 percent. That decline threatened the University’s standing in the closely watched rankings published by U.S. News and World Report (the University currently ranks No. 2, behind Harvard).  

Meanwhile, admission officials at Princeton and Harvard said they were hearing complaints from some parents about what they saw as a lack of options. William R. Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard, told several media outlets the story of an applicant whose first choice was Harvard but who took an early offer from another school because she was eager to wrap up the stressful admission process early.

Rapelye says that the prospect of losing students who chose to apply early elsewhere “wasn’t one of our motivators for going back, given the number of qualified candidates out there.” Though she stresses that Princeton did not return to an early option to increase the percentage of students who accepted its offer, she acknowledges the pressure of competition faced by both the schools and the students. “We knew that if Harvard were to make that decision [to return to early admission], it simply wasn’t practical for us to be the only school left in our peer group without an early option,” she told PAW last March. “There are thousands of great students out there, but in the competitive admission world that we live in, having an option for students where they could indicate their interest but not be locked into the decision ... seemed to us the very best of all possible worlds.”  

A good place to find out where the end of the Slow Application Movement leaves the college-admission landscape is the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. It includes some of the top-ranked public and private high schools, as well as one of the nation’s lowest-performing urban school districts. It is home to counties like Fairfax, Va., where more than a quarter of adult residents boast an advanced degree, and where the median household income tops six figures. Yet it also includes some of the nation’s least-educated and poorest neighborhoods.  

In April, James Madison High School, in Fairfax County, held a “Sophomore College Planning Night” that drew more than 200 parents and students. Attendees snatched up pamphlets with college-application tips and free pens emblazoned with the logos of area colleges before entering the auditorium for a talk by Randy Doss, vice president for enrollment services at Guilford College. Many parents here had not heard of Guilford, a Quaker college in North Carolina, and Doss’ main goal was to bring some calm to a group of parents prone to obsession with getting their kids into a college in the top 25 of those U.S. News rankings.

One joke Mr. Doss told fell flat, though — he marveled that some eager parent he once met wanted to make toilet paper imprinted with SAT questions and answers as a study aid. He meant it as an example of parents overdoing things. But a few parents in the auditorium whispered to each other that they certainly would buy that product if it were available.

Trina Dinavo, whose oldest daughter is a sophomore at the high school, was there to find out how the process had changed since she went to college. (Her daughter stayed at home to study for a big test later in the week.) “There are a lot of moving variables,” she said.

“There’s all of the different gradations and shades of application status and condition — early this and early that — there’s not just one, you see,” Dinavo said.

In fact, the number of early-admission options continues to grow. The early-decision program that Princeton used in the decade before discontinuing early admissions was the most restrictive option: Applicants could apply early to only one institution and pledged to attend if admitted. That is the option most vilified by critics, as it removes any incentive for a university to offer generous financial-aid packages because the student has promised to come no matter the cost, and it prevents an applicant from considering counteroffers from other universities.

Princeton now will use an approach known as single-choice early action. Applicants applying early under the plan may not apply early to any other college or university, but they are not obligated to enroll if accepted, and they have until the regular spring deadline to respond. That gives students a chance to weigh other offers they may receive during the regular-admission cycle. It essentially signals a strong preference without locking students in.

The newest flavor is “early-decision 2,” favored by Vanderbilt University, among other colleges. As under early decision, ­students must promise to attend if accepted, but the admission deadline is later than the deadline of standard early-decision programs. That gives students rejected early by one college a chance to enter an early pool at another institution. Vanderbilt offers both early decision and early-decision 2, giving students more opportunities to show their preference for the institution. Meanwhile, some schools have made their early deadlines even earlier.  

“The early process is really the new regular — it’s the new normal,” says Steve LeMenager, a former Princeton admission official who now runs a private college-counseling service. “Those who wait until January to apply are in a sense out of luck, because a lot of colleges are making a great deal of their decisions early on.”

To Christopher N. Avery, a Harvard professor of public policy and a co-author of The Early Admissions Game, one unfortunate consequence of early programs is that they lead some students and parents to view the admission process as a contest. “It introduces an element of strategy,” he says, “because you have to figure out not only where you want to go to college, but when you want to apply.”

Daniel Nothaft, a senior at James Madison High School, for example, considered applying early to Yale this year, but decided to wait until the regular deadline to spend more time on his application, which included an original song he wrote to support his bid to be a music major there. Ultimately Yale rejected him, though Nothaft, who took 14 AP classes, was accepted to Columbia, Vanderbilt, Virginia, and other highly selective universities. “Maybe he would have had more of a chance if he had done early decision,” says his mother, Lisa Greenfield-Nothaft. “But we wanted more time to do a better application.”

Avery found that applying early can give students a serious boost — the equivalent of an increase of 100 points on an SAT score, when the research was conducted in 2000.  

Of course, by waiting until the regular Jan.1 application deadline, students have time to retake the SAT and perhaps raise their scores even more than 100 points. Or they might improve their grade-point average, because an additional marking period’s worth of grades would be included in their transcript if they applied at the regular deadline.

Though Avery often is viewed as a critic of early admissions, he says he sees pros and cons of the practice. In his book, he says, “We wanted to get past the claim by colleges that they weren’t favoring early applicants. And we wanted to point out what we thought were advantages and disadvantages of the system.”

To colleges, the early system offers many advantages, cutting out much of the uncertainty they face when sending out acceptance letters. Borderline students can be deferred to the regular admission pool, preserving the spot in case someone better comes along. And when colleges attract a strong candidate early, they have more time to recruit that student should another institution try to lure him or her away.

Some students like the early system, too: They simply prefer to find out earlier, cutting short the craziness and angst created by college applications in the senior year.  

In a way, the worst situation for students was having only three selective colleges opt out while everyone else maintained early options, Avery argues. “It created the situation where it’s even more confusing for students.” He imagines a student applying to Princeton when no early option existed there. Thinking strategically, such a student might hesitate to apply early anywhere else, because he or she would fear that Princeton would find out about the early application and wrongly interpret it as a preference for the other college.

Erin E. Kennedy, a school counselor at James Madison High School, says that while she tells students to be cautious about binding early-decision programs, most students are better off starting to think about their college essays in the summer before junior year. “I would much rather see students get into the process earlier,” she says. Some students seeking admission to elite schools need a reality check, she says. “If the early decision is not in the student’s favor, the student has time to move on and pursue other options, rather than holding out hope for an option that would ultimately be a dead-end — especially when the school was the student’s first choice.”  

As college admission has become more like a game, it also has raised the importance of good coaches. But the quality and amount of college-admission counseling available at high schools varies widely. Some high schools have 500 students for every counselor. And that has some critics of early-admission policies worried that students in poor school districts will miss out on a potential edge simply because they are not aware of the options.

“Low-income students tend to be disadvantaged during admissions because they have to rely on the resources their high schools provide,” says Julie Park, an assistant professor of educational leadership at Miami University in Ohio who studies early admission.

A study that Park co-authored this year found that in a survey of thousands of college freshmen, the greatest predictor of whether a student applied early to college was if he or she received private admission counseling — extra help, usually for a hefty fee, that some families hire to supplement their school’s counselor. “Unfortunately, that tends to be the segment of the population that’s already advantaged,” Park says of those who can afford private counselors.

LeMenager, the former Princeton official who is president of the counseling service Edvice, says business has risen every year since he joined the firm in 2007. “As the process has become more and more complex, families don’t feel that they’re getting what they need from their school,” he says.  

Nina W. Marks, who leads a private counseling service in the Washington, D.C., area, says the number of clients there is rising as well. “Even if you know this world, understanding how admission works from year to year is mind-boggling,” she says. Among the advice she offers to students: If you cannot apply early decision because you need to consider financial-aid possibilities before making a choice, let college admission know you prefer their institution but did not apply early because of aid — that way she says, colleges know you are serious about the ­application.

Private counseling services aren’t cheap — packages cost between $2,500 and $10,000. Marks also leads a nonprofit called Collegiate Directions, which provides free college counseling services to about 100 low-income students in the Washington, D.C., area, and similar nonprofit counseling services are springing up because of the growing complexity of admissions, says Theresa Atta, Collegiate Directions’ vice president. “We’re just trying to play catch-up,” she says. “We say, what can we do with our population of students so they can have the type of edge that other students have?”

Atta believes that many students at poorly supported schools end up hearing about early-application options by word of mouth, getting information that is about as accurate as phrases passed through the children’s game of telephone — in which the messages whispered from child to another come out mangled in the end. “They heard from someone who heard from someone that if you apply early, you’ll get in easier,” Atta says — but that’s only part of the story, and many students might be better served by taking time to improve their applications. As options change, deciding when and how to apply is becoming a harder calculation to make, she argues. Students without access to counseling are “less connected with those elite networks who actually do know and keep their ear to the ground of what’s actually happening.”  

How will Princeton address that information gap?

“We’re working right now with planning our travel, thinking about where our outreach needs to be,” says Rapelye, explaining that the goal is to continue the recruiting efforts started in 2006.“One of our foremost goals continues to be encouraging excellent students from a broad array of backgrounds and geographical areas to consider Princeton,” she says. “We are confident we can continue to achieve these goals while also allowing students who are ready to apply early an opportunity to do so.”

Princeton plans to work with community groups similar to Collegiate Directions — such as QuestBridge, College Match, and the Fulfillment Fund — “to identify high-achieving, low-income students,” she says.  

Still, from the perspective of guidance counselors like Walter Johnson High School’s Dennis Reynolds, Princeton’s move back to early admissions is “disheartening,” considering the attitudes he sees in his office. This year a record number of students at his school applied early to college — 17 percent of its 504 seniors. “Now I know that it’s going to be status quo moving forward,” Reynolds says. “We’re stuck with the early-decision frenzy.”  

Jeffrey R. Young ’95 is a senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education, where he has covered college-admission issues and now focuses on technology.

An admission lexicon

EARLY ADMISSION:  

General term for an admission process requiring application in November of the senior year. A second admission process – ­“regular” admission — has a winter deadline. There are two major types of early admission: early action and early decision.  

EARLY DECISION:  

An applicant applies to just one college early, and agrees to attend that college if ­admitted. Princeton had this kind of ­program when it ­abandoned early admission for the class entering in 2008.

EARLY ACTION:  

An applicant may apply early, and need not commit to attend if accepted. Princeton is ­adopting a “single-choice­ e­­arly-action” plan, meaning ­students applying early to Princeton may not also apply early to other colleges.

Princeton now will use an approach known as ­single-choice early action. Applicants applying early under the plan may not apply early to any other college or university, but they are not
obligated to enroll if accepted, and they have until the regular spring deadline to respond. That gives students a chance to weigh other offers they may receive ­during the regular-admission cycle. It essentially signals a strong preference without locking ­students in.

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