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College Admission Follies

June 29, 2002

This month's graduating high school seniors who were accepted by a college a few months ago are enjoying their summer. Some juniors will suffer the tickle of worry during their months off. With the outpouring of students going up faster than the available slots, good schools are selecting tinier percentages of applicants and students are compelled to apply early, hoping to get accepted ahead of the pack. Almost all of America's elite colleges have an "early decision" plan, allowing students to apply in November or thereabouts. If accepted, usually by mid-December, the students are considered bound to attend.

Criticism of such programs has been louder and more widespread this school year after the Atlantic Monthly reported at length on how the early-decision practice helped colleges at the expense of a diverse student body. Yale University's president is calling for the end of early decision, and Harvard may start undermining the system this fall.

The number of students applying early has increased dramatically over the last decade, to 163,000 in the fall of 2000. Add to that a study showing that applying early is like adding 100 points to a student's SAT score, in terms of the chance of being accepted, and the pressure to apply early is on--even for students who are not sure where they want to go.

Colleges like early decision because if more freshmen are accepted early and are bound to attend, the overall percentage of accepted students who decide to attend goes up. In college admissions lingo, schools are artificially inflating their "yield." Schools are also able to lock in applicants with high SAT scores and class rankings. This boosts colleges' standings in the ridiculously influential ranking of U.S. News & World Report.

But early decision is harmful to many students, and not only the stressed-out ones. Students who need substantial financial aid often have to wait and apply "regular decision" in December so they can compare aid offers from different schools.

Although the issue reportedly was not debated at a recent meeting of Ivy League presidents, any reform of early-decision's flaws has to start with the most sought-after schools. Harvard may be accepting applications from students who have applied early elsewhere. We support such a step.

Ex-Yalie Garry Trudeau took hilarious aim at the tricks of college admissions policies in his Doonesbury strips in May, skewering the gyrations used to raise "yield." We encourage his alma mater to drop early decision, without waiting for others to join in. More dominoes would inevitably fall and college admissions would be fairer to rich and poor alike.

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