Two of the nation's most competitive universities announced Wednesday that they will drop their binding early admission programs in favor of less controversial alternatives.
In separate announcements within hours of each other, Yale and Stanford said they are abandoning "early decision" programs under which students apply months early to a single institution and pledge to enroll if accepted. Critics say the programs, in place at many of the nation's top schools, have contributed to a growing frenzy surrounding the college admission process and favor affluent students, whose parents and high schools tend to be the most sophisticated about the process.
Both universities said they will shift to nonbinding "early action" programs, in which students also apply and are accepted months before the traditional spring admission cycle -- but are not required to decide immediately whether they will attend. At both institutions, the change will take effect for those starting college in the fall of 2004.
In making his announcement, Yale President Richard C. Levin said he has grown increasingly troubled by what he and others see as stress and other negative effects brought about by the early decision programs.
"Students shouldn't have to make a final decision so early in their senior year [of high school]," Levin said in an interview. "By loosening our early admission rules, we will reduce the need for students to make these strategic decisions about where to apply first."
In addition, he said, "we can help level the playing field for students who need financial aid." Students who require help paying for college are often uncomfortable applying early because they need to compare financial aid packages offered by various schools.
Last fall, Levin proposed that his and other elite institutions agree to abandon the binding programs and, in a sign of how competitive the college admission process has become, said his university could not afford to make such a move alone.
Levin's comments last fall helped fuel a growing debate over the early programs. It was further intensified by new research showing that early application to a competitive school improved the odds for admission by the equivalent of about 100 extra points on the SAT exam.
On Wednesday, Levin said Yale had decided to go forward on its own and hoped other schools might follow suit. "We feel strongly that this is the right thing to do," he said, despite the risk that the move might result in fewer students accepting Yale's offer of admission.
For colleges, a clear benefit of the binding early admission programs is that they allow the schools to lock in talented young scholars early, thus enhancing their standings in influential rankings published by U.S. News & World Report and others.
Stanford, which has had an early decision program since the mid-1990s, made its own announcement late Wednesday. University officials said the decision was independent of Yale's but was also timed to come after the Nov. 1 deadline for this fall's early applicants.
Stanford said it had hoped to have time to consult with the National Assn. for College Admission Counseling, whose guidelines urge colleges to allow students to apply early to as many schools as they want.
But the school went ahead when it learned of Yale's announcement.
Both Stanford and Yale's new policies ask students to agree not to file early applications to other schools, although they are free to apply elsewhere in the regular spring admissions cycle and make a final choice in May.
Harvard, which until Wednesday was alone in the Ivy League in offering a nonbinding early action policy, sparked a brief furor this summer by hinting that it might continue requiring its early action applicants not to apply early elsewhere. It eventually bowed to the admission group's guidelines.
It was not clear Wednesday how many other competitive schools might follow Yale and Stanford.
At least one, the University of Pennsylvania, said it is not considering a change. Admissions dean Lee Stetson, an outspoken proponent of binding early decision, said he continued to believe that the program benefits students and universities such as his.
He also predicted that the publicity was likely to raise the profile of such options at Penn and other universities.