Defusing Colleges' Race to Admit Students


College admissions deans say they hate "early decision." But they use it anyway.

They have to, they say, to keep up with competitors who use the practice to lock in the best and brightest students months before the usual May 1 deadline for committing to attend a certain college.

The rules are well known to seniors studying top private schools: You apply early--usually by the first part of December--and learn early whether you have gotten in. But you can apply only to one school that way. And you are bound to attend if it accepts you.

Every year, the numbers go up. Harvard has already accepted more than half its fall freshman class. Stanford, Yale and Princeton have accepted more than a third. At last count, the College Board found that 230 colleges--mostly private ones--have joined the early chase.

In Ventura County's Conejo Unified School District, two high schools--Westlake and Thousand Oaks--have reported three early admissions from Harvard this year, new records for each school.

USC Admissions Dean Joe Allen this week suggested that it's time to defuse the arms race--through a three-year suspension of early decision. The idea? Just to see what happens when more students get to choose among several schools that accept them.

"Will Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford all fall?" Allen asked. "Will they be able to attract the students they most want?"

Speaking at a College Board regional meeting in Pasadena, he suggested that the colleges would survive--and would be doing the right thing.

Once again, high school students could spend their full senior year considering options for college, weighing financial aid packages and academic programs.

The proposal found a receptive audience. In a show of hands, all but a dozen of 300 educators in attendance supported a three-year moratorium. "I know that early makes it easier on a college," said Esther Hugo, a counselor at Westchester High School. "But is a 16-year-old really ready to make a four-year decision?"

Another counselor said early admission has heightened "college panic" among students--and parents--that they will not get into the school of their choice.

For those who are rejected, it can be devastating. And for those who are accepted--often by the Christmas break--the rest of the year can be lost to "senioritis," with little incentive to keep up grades.

"What's the difference between a zombie and a second-semester senior?" Hugo asked. "Nothing."

But early admissions surge, in part because colleges know those students can't turn them down. That increases the overall percentage who accept offers of admission--a top measure of prestige. And Stanford representative Holly Thompson did not seem ready to scrap her school's program, in its second year, which just finished picking 38% of next fall's freshman class.

"Of course it's selfish," she said. "My job is to find and admit the best students. Of course, we are in competition with the nation's other top schools."

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