The Costs of Early-Admission Programs Are Many

In a guest post today, Louis L. Hirsh describes the consequences of early-admission programs. Mr. Hirsh is a former director of admissions at the University of Delaware.

I once shared a panel with nine admissions colleagues. Because there were so many of us, each of us was given only three minutes to describe our colleges before the Q&A started.

Next to me was a young admissions rep from an excellent college that had both “Early Decision I” and “Early Decision II,” as well as deadlines for various scholarship programs. It took him his entire three minutes just to explain the different deadlines and notification dates.

A generation ago, the less-selective colleges practiced rolling admission, and the more selective ones notified applicants in the spring. Early decision was rare and existed only for the few academic superstars. Admissions was primarily a counseling profession, and families reasonably assumed that our decisions reflected a thorough review of their student’s accomplishments. Waiting until spring to hear was acceptable to most teenagers. The phrase, “gaming the system,” hadn’t yet been invented with regard to college admission. Life was good.

So why have we complicated our lives with early-notification programs? The answer is that colleges compete against each other, and most college presidents believe that the sooner you let kids know they are admitted, the likelier you are to lure them away from the competition.

Students, too, feel the pressure, and each year more of them apply early to enhance their chances of admission. At some schools, over half the senior class applies “early” somewhere.

Whether binding early-decision plans discriminates in favor of wealthy, advantaged students has been widely debated. So, too, has been the complexity of having so many different early options.

But I wonder how many have asked a broader question: Despite what college presidents think, wouldn’t colleges and students alike be better off if there weren’t any early notification programs at all?

Early-notification programs reward 17-year-olds for choosing their colleges early and for meeting earlier application deadlines. Since when did haste become a virtue, however? There is no a virtue in giving teachers and counselors less time to write recommendations, especially when their letters would be more useful if they were written after they had seen more of their student’s senior year work.

Meanwhile, at admissions offices the growing number of early-notification applicants compresses the work of several months into several weeks. How ironic that we spend much of the year imploring students to write thoughtful applications only to hobble ourselves with early deadlines that make it impossible to give those applications the careful consideration that they richly deserve.

Defenders of early notification say that it relieves stress to be able to sit down for a holiday meal in December and know that you already have a college admission in hand. I don’t doubt that. I also agree that those who get “no” answers at least know where they stand, and can turn their attentions elsewhere.

The problem is that for many the answer is not “yes” or “no,” but “maybe.” If yours is a very selective college, the majority of your early applicants will become deferrals who are caught in an admissions limbo, an extended wait list, if you will. What about those students and their stress levels?

As anxious—and sometimes irate—parents and counselors call to ask about the decision and their student’s chances for eventual admission, your staff spends an inordinate amount of time in January and February talking to disgruntled people. That is bad for morale, and it certainly isn’t how you want your colleagues spending their time.

Some reasons for a deferral you can comfortably discuss, if not with the student, then at least with the student’s school counselor. For example, you love the kid, but are troubled by some grades (or test scores), and are hoping the student will pull them up.

Other reasons, however, are too embarrassing to discuss—embarrassing because they reflect the financial, marketing, and strategic realities that now dominate college admissions in the 21st century. None of the following scenarios casts my profession in a noble light, but they do reflect practices that are widespread.

• The student comes from a low-income family. Your financial-aid budget is tight, and you must be careful about admitting high-need students.

• For years, the student’s high school has viewed your college as a safety school for its seniors. Deferring all of its applicants this year is your strategy for getting them to view you differently.

• The student is a development interest. Truth to tell, he is so awful that you will never admit him, but you are deferring him (and will eventually wait-list him) as a courtesy to the donor.

• His school counselor has checked the “please call me” box. In the rush to get out thousands of early decisions, you never followed up. You feel guilty, and deferring buys you time to make that phone call.

• In a world of unpredictable yield rates, a large wait list is a necessity. You defer the student, not because you expect to offer admission in March, but because you’ll need the student for your wait list.

That last example is the most painful because it means that you have strung the student along from mid-December until . . . May? June? July? It is a practice that incenses school counselors .

Perhaps the only compelling reason for early-notification programs is that your competitors have them. My question to our profession, then, is this: Is the cost to students, to high schools, to your own harried staff, and to the integrity of the process worth the candle?

Return to Top