In 2007, Georgetown University’s admissions staff expected a flood, and it got one. The university received 6,000 early-admission applications, a 31-percent increase from the previous year.
The rise was striking, but not shocking. After all, three of Georgetown’s high-profile competitors—Harvard and Princeton Universities, and the University of Virginia—had eliminated their early-admission programs that year. Scores of eager, high-achieving students apparently jumped into Georgetown’s nonbinding “early-action” pool instead. More and more applications came each year after that, climbing to 6,658 in 2010.
But this fall would be different. At least that’s what Charles A. Deacon predicted after Harvard, Princeton, and Virginia reinstated early-admission programs this year. The two Ivy League universities adopted restrictive early-action policies that bar applicants from applying early to other private colleges. So Mr. Deacon, Georgetown’s dean of admissions, suspected that his university would see early-action applications drop by as much as 30 percent.
That didn’t happen. Georgetown’s final tally was 6,750 applications, a handful more than last year. “The question is, Why hasn’t the same change reversing the increase of four years ago occurred?” Mr. Deacon says. “It just becomes ever less predictable.”
Another early-admission season is winding down, and this one has a back-to-the-future vibe. The same three institutions that had won praise for abandoning their early-admission programs became symbols of application-saturation this fall. Princeton received 3,547 early applications—nearly three times the number of seats in its freshman class. Virginia, which has a nonrestrictive early-action program like Georgetown, received 11,417 early applications; that’s about 9,000 more than the university saw back in 2007, when it had a binding early-decision program. As of Friday afternoon, Harvard had yet to announce its total, but it’s safe to guess that the number is gigantic.
Although Harvard, Princeton, and a handful of other hyper-selective colleges enroll only a sliver of the nation’s students, their application harvest this fall reflects a larger trend in college admissions: the allure of the early bird keeps growing, for students and colleges alike. More institutions—including less-selective colleges and those without early-admission programs—are evaluating applicants sooner and extending offers earlier than ever before. As students and enrollment officials alike grasp for certainty in an uncertain time, the admissions cycle keeps spinning faster.
An ‘Inflationary Spiral’
On November 10, Marie Bigham, director of college counseling at the Greenhill School, in Addison, Texas, gasped when she looked to see how many of her 118 seniors had already submitted at least one application. All but eight had done so.
Ms. Bigham couldn’t remember so many of her students applying so early, but the numbers suggest that they had been taking her advice. Ms. Bigham has been encouraging students to complete their application materials over the summer, so that early fall means proof-reading applications rather than brainstorming essay ideas. “When they finish their documents earlier,” she says, “they are more eager to send it and get it out of their life.”
This year, only a handful of Ms. Bigham’s students applied to binding early-decision programs. Instead, most of applied to early-action programs, which have become more popular among students, according to counselors and admissions officers. For some institutions, the programs have also become major engines of enrollment. According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s most recent “State of College Admission” report, 30 percent of colleges surveyed offered early action in 2010, and nearly 74 percent saw increases in early applications, while 68 percent reported increases in early offers. Among early-action institutions, early applications accounted for 44 percent of all applications received (colleges with early-decision programs received 12 percent of their applications early).
Some admissions deans have described early-action programs as a kinder, gentler form of early-decision plans, in which applicants apply to just one college and agree to enroll if accepted. By contrast, an early-action applicant who receives an acceptance from a particular college is not obligated to enroll there, and has until May 1 to make up his mind.
Nonetheless, some observers have expressed concerns, especially about the restrictive forms of early-action programs. In a prescient 2005 column published in The Chronicle, Bruce J. Poch, then vice president and dean of admissions at Pomona College, said that such programs have unintended consequences. He described how students tend to maintain applications at other colleges through the spring even when they plan to enroll at their single-choice college, leading to longer wait lists, warped enrollment estimates, and more uncertainty for everyone involved.
In the end, Mr. Poch wrote, “all that single-choice early action will have done is to add to the inflationary spiral of college applications and encourage selfish behavior on the part of both institutions and students.”
Many Shades of Early
Some counselors have complained that restrictive early-action programs prevent students from applying for scholarships that other private colleges reserve only for early applicants. As first cited last week on The Choice admissions blog, Sally Rubenstone, senior advisor at College Confidential, wrote recently that single-choice early-action programs are pinching middle-income students. Despite claims that early-action programs provide flexibility to applicants, Ms. Rubenstone wrote, colleges with restrictive early-action programs “are not offering this flexibility to many strong candidates—including the blue-collar students that they claim they want to woo—who can’t afford to ignore the best merit aid opportunities.”
Harvard and Princeton allow early-action candidates to apply early only to public institutions with non-binding programs, as well to colleges that practice rolling admissions. Stanford University’s restrictive early-action plan grants the same exceptions, but permits students to apply to colleges with early deadlines for scholarships—as long as those programs are non-binding, of course.
Given the many permutations early-action policies, it’s easy to understand why some deans still swear by early-decision programs, which, by contrast, seem like models of simplicity. Robert G. Springall, dean of admissions at Bucknell University, says his institution’s early-decision policy buffers it from the uncertainties associated with non-binding early plans: generally, 98 percent of students admitted early end up enrolling.
Last year, Bucknell received 761 applications through its two rounds of early deadlines, and 7,178 regular-decision applications. It enrolled a freshman class of 919. Nobody needs a calculator to understand that early decision is good for Bucknell. As Mr. Springall says, the program helps him “build the foundation” of a class, to start meeting specific enrollment goals while admitting applicants who are serious about enrolling.
Mr. Springall believes that early decision is good for some students, too—the ones who really want to commit to a particular college sooner rather than later. He sees other early programs differently. “For places that have opened to early action, the logic is sound, but the volume it creates makes me wonder if it’s a healthy thing,” Mr. Springall says. “The philosopher in me worries that it puts students in the mindset to apply to five places right now, to maximize their chances, instead of thinking about what college is best for them.”
Mr. Springall has watched changes in the traditional admissions calendar with great interest. As more institutions, especially public universities, have either adopted or expanded early-action programs, or given regular-decision applicants incentives to apply sooner, he has wondered how that trend will shape the decisions of those students in Bucknell’s pool who receive early acceptances elsewhere. “What’s concerning me right now is how will that affect our yield in March,” he says. “Some institutions will have a two, three, or four-month jump on us in courting them as admitted students.”
At Virginia, officials expected the move to early action to benefit the institution in various ways. It would appeal to students who want to apply to college early, but who had been “off the table” for the university in previous years, according to a June 2010 document describing the admission office’s recommendations for early action.
Moreover, the switch would enable Virginia to start recruitment events in February or March instead of April, the recommendations said: “It would allow for a more targeted and sophisticated marketing/yield strategy. We will be able to develop new school specific print material for admitted students which allows for a more segmented and strategic approach to recruiting.”
Yet the move to early action would also bring challenges. Greg Roberts, Virginia’s dean of admissions, expected that the number of applications read between November and January would triple. This year, admissions officers started their recruitment travel in August so that they would be back on the campus sooner to start reading files. In November, this has meant tackling about 30 files a day instead of 15. Mr. Roberts also hired two full-time staffers and at least 10 part-time readers to handle the increased volume.
Mr. Roberts is pleased with the quality of early applicants, both their credentials and their diversity. This year, about two-thirds of Virginia’s early-action applications were from out-of-state students, the same ratio Mr. Roberts sees in the university’s regular-decision pool each year. The university will not cap the number of students it admits early, though he would like to admit the same percentage of applicants in each pool.
“I’ll probably be more cautious with early action admits because we don’t know what’s coming later,” Mr. Roberts says. “My fear would be to take too many kids early and then receive better applicants later.”
Mr. Roberts believes early action serves students well by not binding them to an institution. Although he’s happy with the new policy, he sees one cause for concern. Recently, he noticed that a high school that had sent five applicants to Virginia last year, sent 15 early applicants this fall. “This makes me wonder if we will see even greater numbers in the regular pool,” he says.
Furthermore, Mr. Roberts knows that the university’s yield (the percentage of students who enroll) will be more difficult to predict than it was last spring. “This year will be particularly anxious,” he says, “and I’m already anxious ever year.”
In the end, the story of early-action in 2011 is not really about what happens at the most-selective colleges (they will be just fine, by any measure). The story’s really about how, in the wild ecosystem of enrollment, one institution’s actions and policies will affect another—and what that will mean for individual students down the line.
At Georgetown, Mr. Deacon suspects that Harvard and Princeton siphoned many early applicants out of his institution’s pool this year. So he expects that Georgetown’s yield for early-action applications, which dropped from 60 percent to 46 percent back in 2007, will go back up to where it used to be, which would be good news for the university.
But then again, that’s just a prediction.