Early decision is back in the news

By Eric Quiñones

Princeton NJ -- For Ryan McDonald, the choice was easy. Realizing Princeton University was the best fit among the schools he was considering, McDonald took the opportunity to apply for admission early in his senior year of high school -- with the condition that he must enroll if accepted.

"I think if you make the decision that you want to apply there because it's the one place where you know you're really going to be happy, then early decision is a good policy," said McDonald, now a sophomore.


For others, the decision is not as clear-cut. Even if students have one school in mind as a top choice, they may not be ready to commit to that institution so early in their final year of high school. For those students, early decision is not the right choice. One of the concerns has been that students not ready to commit to a single school will nonetheless apply early because the percentage of early applicants admitted is so much higher than the percentage admitted in the regular admission process.

The issue was back in the news recently when Yale and Stanford announced they would replace their binding early decision programs in favor of "early action" plans, which will go into effect next year. They will still allow students to apply early in their senior years of high school, but will not obligate them to attend in exchange for early acceptance. They will, however, require that students apply early to only one university.

Yale will join Harvard as the only Ivy League schools with non-binding early action programs, although Harvard differs by permitting its early action applicants also to apply early to other schools.

Princeton switched from early action to early decision in 1995, feeling that a binding, single-application process would be most beneficial to students and to the institution.

"The ultimate test of any admission process for Princeton is whether it is fair and equitable to our applicants and whether it allows the University to enroll the strongest possible class, measured against all the qualities that are important to us," President Tilghman said earlier this year in her Princeton Alumni Weekly column. "In our experience, a carefully administered early decision program meets this test."

"At the same time," Tilghman said more recently, "this is a topic we will want to review carefully with the new dean of admission we hope to appoint later this year, after he or she has had an opportunity to go through at least one full admission cycle at Princeton."

Good option for some

Dean of Admission Fred Hargadon said that early decision is not for all students. However, it is greatly appreciated by students who have carefully weighed their options and decided that one school is their ideal selection, he said.

"I have seen no evidence whatsoever that students who have applied early decision to Princeton and been offered admission made any less thoughtful decisions about college than those who have applied in our regular decision process," Hargadon noted.

A binding, single-application program tends to reduce the number of early applications -- a trend that Princeton experienced when it switched from early action. One result of the Yale and Stanford actions may be to increase the number of students who apply early to those schools.

Binding early decision programs allow admission officers to conduct the regular admission process knowing exactly how many spaces in the class have already been filled and which characteristics those students will bring to the class. This assists the admission office in its attempt to enroll a class that includes a broad range of talents and interests. Under early action, admission officers have no way of knowing which of the admitted students will attend and cannot plan accordingly.

Since early action programs allow admitted students to file regular applications at other schools (perhaps just to see if they get admitted or to see what level of financial aid they might receive), regular admission applicants at the other schools may be competing with students who have already been admitted early elsewhere and have every intention of turning down any additional offers they may get. Unlike early action, early decision helps to reduce multiple applications, clearing the way for other students to compete for the remaining spaces.

A frequent criticism of binding early decision programs is that they prevent students who require financial aid from weighing competing packages.

"This is not an issue for Princeton," Tilghman said, "in part because our financial aid policies are the strongest in the country with respect to need-based aid and, in part, because we do not engage in bargaining."

Since 1998, the University has implemented a variety of measures to make a Princeton education even more affordable, most notably replacing loans with grants that need not be repaid.

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