The early decision admissions policy used at Ivy League and private universities is under heavy scrutiny after the recent publication of a comprehensive study by three Harvard University professors.
The professors concluded that the policy, created to benefit high school seniors certain of their first choice school, is detrimental to those students and the admissions process in general. Under the early decision policy, high school seniors are notified of their acceptance status sooner than other students but are required to attend the institution.
“It”s sort of like a marriage proposal,” said John Boshoven, a counselor at Community High School in Ann Arbor. Boshoven added that he usually discourages his students from applying for early decision.
“For the regular middle class kid, the financial risk of the early decision is too high,” he said.
The majority of public institutions, including the University of Michigan, do not use the process, said Ted Spencer, the University”s director of undergraduate admissions.
Instead, the University uses a rolling admissions process, meaning that students who apply earlier receive their responses earlier, but do not have to make a commitment to attend. In a rolling admissions process, universities try to get back to applicants six to eight weeks after the application was received. Private institutions accept early decision and early action students all at once.
Many critics of the early decision process believe institutions using it are doing so for their own benefit not that of students.
“The whole process of early decision has started to take on a life of its own in the smaller schools who are competing against each other,” Spencer said. “They are trying to identify and compete for that blue chip academic student, that kid with the four-point, the 1600. Other schools won”t be able to compete for those students.”
Spencer added that some schools have problems getting enough students to commit using a regular admissions policy. Students that apply to multiple universities cannot be counted on, and early decision prohibits students from applying to more than one institution.
“It helps guarantee that some students will arrive in the fall because of the binding nature of the early decision process,” he said.
Beside the reduced uncertainty over how many students will commit, the Harvard study also concluded that early decision admissions gives institutions “a convincing sign of enthusiasm.”
Dick Tobin, the director of college counseling at Greenhills, a private school for 6th to 12th graders in Ann Arbor, said early decision admissions can do exactly what the policy was designed to do by allowing a student relax and focus on other things if they are admitted or the exact opposite.
“In general, it can be stressful for a lot of kids, it probably would be more stressful for our kids if more of them were applying using” early decision policies, he said. “If you”re rejected or if you deferred, then all the question marks are still there.”
In the study, Harvard Profs. Christopher Avery, Andrew Fairbanks and Richard Zeckhauser found “a greater proportion of applicants is applying and getting accepted earlier (and) colleges set lower standards for early than regular applicants.”
Use of early decision admissions also helps raise a school”s U.S. News and World Report ranking, according to the study. Early decision policies can raise selectivity and yield ratings, two of the factors U.S. News uses in its ratings.
The study states that “one obvious way for a college to improve its performance in terms of selectivity and yield is to accept more early applicants. By increasing the number of early admits, a college can reduce the total number of applicants it must accept to fill the incoming class.”
The high number of accepted early decision applicants means that fewer spaces are left open for students applying before the regular application deadline. Those students usually come from less privileged and public schools versus expensive, private high schools.
Tobin said about one forth of Greenhills students apply using early decision or early action admissions, although he said he does not recommend that most students do so. Boshoven said only 10 percent of Community High School seniors apply using early decision.
“I”m like a lot of counselors. I worry about early decision I worry about it rushing students into making premature decisions without having the chance for them to figure out what they really want.” Tobin said. Early decision “tends to sort of highlight college admissions as a strategy. It undermines the importance of thinking carefully about what place you want to be at where you want to get to and if it makes sense to you personally.”
Although the majority of the highest-ranked colleges use early decision admissions, including Harvard, Yale, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Virginia, Spencer said the policy is not needed nor wanted at the University.
“The larger schools in Michigan have felt, rightly so, that students need as much time as we can grant them to make their decisions,” he said. “It is not one that is binding, and so a student can look at other schools and other universities so they can make sure that the University of Michigan is the best fit.”