Published Online: January 22, 1997

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Early-Decision Applications for College on the Rise

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As if stressed-out college applicants didn't have enough to worry about, last fall they faced a mountain of pressure to apply early.

But while early-decision applications are on the rise at the most competitive colleges, many counselors are nevertheless urging students and their parents to slow down and take the time to make informed, thoughtful choices about higher education.

"The whole intent of these programs was to develop a quicker way for kids to gain admission," said Bill McClintick, the vice president for admissions practices for the National Association for College Admission Counseling. "The problem is that because this has gotten so much publicity, and it's clear that the admit rates in many cases are higher in these programs, the more sophisticated consumers are trying to play the game to maximize their odds."

Under a typical early-decision program, a student applies only to his or her first-choice school sometime in November, making a commitment to enroll if accepted. Students generally receive a decision from the institution by Dec. 15.

Princeton, Stanford, and Yale universities drew attention in fall 1995 when all three adopted early-decision programs. Since then, a wide range of competitive schools has reported a jump in early-decision applications. Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., for example, had a 25 percent gain in early-decision applications in fall 1995 followed by a 26 percent increase last fall.

Students feel pressure from parents, fellow students, and the colleges themselves to submit applications on the fast track, said Judith Berg, an Oakhurst, N.J.-based college consultant and the president of the Independent Educational Consultants Association.

"When a student says, 'I don't know where I want to apply, but I know I want to apply early,' that's a pressure situation," she said.

Mr. McClintick, who is also the director of college counseling for Mercersburg Academy, a private high school in Mercersburg, Pa., said he would urge a student to apply early only if he or she had a clear first choice.

Maintaining Perspective

Part of the early-decision commotion last fall stemmed from newspaper reports that many colleges were adding these expedited programs and that some schools had taken nearly 50 percent of their freshman classes from the early-applicant pool.

But a November study by the Alexandria, Va.-based NACAC attempted to put some of the hype into perspective. The admissions counselors' group reported that most early-decision programs have been in place for more than five years and that only one in 10 had been established during the past two years. Unlike the Ivy League schools that pioneered the practice, the colleges instituting such programs recently tended to be public, moderately selective schools, the study found.

The report's authors also discovered that on average only 18 percent of last fall's freshman college classes were filled with students admitted through early-decision programs.

And the survey also found that 38.8 percent of college representatives believe that students admitted under such programs do not honor the commitment to enroll as they did in the past. Students back out primarily because financial aid was insufficient or they changed their minds, said the survey respondents.

ACAC plans to do a brief survey of admissions officers about such expedited applications and acceptances, said Joyce Smith, the organization's acting executive director. That survey, tentatively slated for next month, will help counselors get a better understanding of what the trends are, she said.

Still Feeling Pressure

Still, students continue to feel external pressure to take the quick-decision route. "Students come in with the articles and are afraid, even though they don't know for sure what school they want to attend or they're not sure about the financial aid," said Elsa Clark, the director of college counseling at Immaculate Heart High School, a Roman Catholic girls' school in Los Angeles that serves many minority and first-generation college applicants.

Students also face pressure from home, especially when parents pay close attention to college rankings, said Jim Alexander, a college consultant who works with Highland Park High School in Highland Park, Ill., a well-to-do suburb of Chicago.

"I think there's a great deal of parental pressure. Their concern is that their kids not lose out," he said.

In fact, the stress about early decision is being felt primarily by upper-income students applying to the top tier of schools, according to Mr. McClintick.

Steven Antonoff, a college consultant in Denver, Colo., estimated that about half of the students rushing to apply early are doing so because they are feeding into the frenzy. "What you have with early decision is something that can be abused by those who are college-shopping hysterical," said Mr. Antonoff.

But the other half of the early-decision applicants, Mr. Antonoff said, have done so because of a reasoned choice, based on early planning, in which the student is sure that the school is a good fit. That's why the first group is missing the point altogether, he said.

"Getting in is one part," he said, "but fitting in is another part."

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