November 12, 2002

Risky admissions decision

The decision of Yale and Stanford to change their admissions style to Early Action from Early Decision reminds me of the summer before last, when after having finished high school and the college admissions game, I engaged in an online argument with James Fallows on the Atlantic Monthly discussion board. His recent article suggested that Early Admissions be abolished altogether, at least temporarily. I argued the virtue of Early Action.

The most tangible problem created by Early Decision is that applicants from lower and middle class families are put at a disadvantage because they need to shop for financial aid packages. Schools that would give merit scholarships would have no incentives to give them to students who are already committed. This problem is mostly solved by the removal of the binding clause of Early Decision, but there is still an advantage for those who are lucky enough to be at a college preparatory school. These are the students who have the counseling so that they can have their act together to apply early at all.

Dropping non-binding early admissions makes it more likely that fewer admitted students would actually attend. By acting without the other Ivy League schools, Yale could drop to the bottom of the Harvard-Yale-Princeton troika, which is understandably undesirable for Yale. Still, come to think of it, Yale's yield—the percentage of admitted students who matriculate—may not drop by that much. The yield will be an interesting statistic to watch, especially in light of Brown's switch to Early Decision.

Interestingly enough Brown switched from Early Action to Early Decision only last year. Previously, Brown had employed a system similar to what Yale and Stanford are proposing—exclusive early application, but non-binding. The National Association of College Admissions Counselors coerced Brown to choose between the established Early Action and Early Decision formats. Originally, Brown had adopted Early Action, but were so deluged by applications that they switched to Early Decision instead. That is really too bad, because it could have been a very good idea. The college in question knows that the applicant is more interested in them than any other college, but does not bind the applicant from choosing another school if financial aid considerations force their hand.

Perhaps, though, I have been a little too idealistic about the nature of the game. As much as college counselors will counsel, students will use early decision strategically. There have even been cases of college counselors in prep schools who have colluded with students, splitting the early applications among the Ivy Leagues, distributing the chips on the roulette board so to speak, in order that everyone has a greater chance of getting in.

Then again, I'd like to have some confidence in the youth of America. It seems the real culprit can be none other than obsessive parents who, though they cannot be blamed for wanting their children to succeed, often have a rather narrow definition of "success." Recently, Worth Magazine (which is read by rising entrepreneurs, who are often the most driven of the driven), ran an article, without the least tinge of irony, mind you, on which private schools had the best placement rates for Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. The game has escalated.

Still, given all that, I cannot but commend Yale and Stanford for the courage they have shown, in the face of the absurdity that is college admissions.