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Published in Print: September 15, 1999, as More Students Make Early College Commitment

More Students Make Early College Commitment

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It is the second week of school in Mountain Lakes, N.J., and Greg Youngman, the director of guidance at Mountain Lakes High School, is trying to keep jittery seniors calm.

Even before the school year started Sept. 8, members of the class of 2000 began approaching Mr. Youngman about applying for college under early-decision or early-action admissions plans. About one-third of the 124-member graduating class will need letters of recommendation, transcripts, and information on paying for college before they've even attended their first fall football game.

"It is obviously panic," Mr. Youngman said. "We're trying to slow things down a bit so parents and students make the right lifelong decisions, but it is pretty difficult at times."

While early-decision and early-action policies have been around for nearly four decades, those options have increased in popularity in recent years. In the 1990s, many top public universities and small liberal arts colleges have adopted the plans, which were piloted by Ivy League schools in the 1960s.

Seniors who apply for early decisions submit their applications in the fall and are generally notified of their status by the December break. Such students enter into a binding agreement when they apply and, if accepted by a college under this process, must attend the school. For students who take the early-action route, the time frame is similar, but they are not committed to enroll.

"There is a real hysteria out there because of early-decision and -action plans," Mr. Youngman said. "It sends a ripple through the entire application process."

Many students see such applications as a way to earn extra points with college-admissions officers by showing just how much they want to attend a particular school. Getting into college early also makes the last year of high school easier for many students. Grades don't matter as much, and the seniors are free to focus on sports, dances, and other activities while their classmates fret over college essays and interviews.

Critics, however, contend that the policies are structured to benefit institutions and students with money, and that they tempt students to choose a college before they are ready.

"Every student I see always has questions about whether or not they should go early-decision," said Joe Bernard, an independent college counselor in Portland, Ore. "But for 90 percent of students, it doesn't meet their needs."

Rising Interest

During the current school year, about 54,000 of the 1.2 million students who will apply to four-year colleges will lock themselves into a particular school by the middle of their senior year, up from 42,000 in 1997-98, the College Board predicts. That would be an increase of almost 30 percent in early-decision admissions.

No figures are available on the growth in the number of students who apply for early action. Counselors and other observers say that, while early-action plans do not require the same level of commitment of early-decision programs, they still feed an increased sense of application urgency in high schools.

The number of colleges and universities that offer the plans has also grown. Some 476 of the 3,500 four-year institutions in the United States currently have such policies, up from 367 during the 1981-82 school year, the College Board says.

The schools include such respected private institutions as Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., and public flagships such as Indiana University in Bloomington. Even lesser-known schools like the Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif., and Albertson College of Idaho in Caldwell have added early-decision and early-action policies.

Colleges like the policies in part because they make the admissions process less stressful for students, which increases the appeal of the schools and decreases marketing costs, said Trent R. Anderson, a contributing editor to a college guide published by Kaplan Educational Centers. They also assure institutions that only the most committed and academically strong students apply first, he added, and enable admissions officers to spread out their annual workload.

Just as important, they help colleges determine their "yield"--the number of students accepted who actually attend--earlier in the year, a major consideration for budgeting.

Experts emphasize that, despite the increased numbers, such policies still affect only a small percentage of applicants. Most high school students begin the college search late in the junior year or early in senior year and submit applications in the winter and spring of senior year.

"The reality is that there are more spots in colleges than there are students," Mr. Anderson said. "And most schools have acceptance rates above 40 percent. There are only a handful of schools with acceptance rates below 10 percent."

Interest in such policies has been fed by news organizations that rank colleges and universities, said Cigus Vanni, a counselor at Bishop Eustance Preparatory School in Pennsauken, N.J., and a former dean and admissions counselor at Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pa. Such rankings show how competitive schools are--a status built partially from numbers drawn from early-decision and early-action policies.

"It seems to me an awful lot of people are putting stock in that particular cluster of schools," Mr. Vanni said. "Kids and parents are taking a less reflective course in trying to figure out what is right for them. Rather than figuring out and listening to internal cues ... they are drawn by external variables and the promise of status."

Getting an Edge

Corey Magyar, 17, a senior at New Jersey's Mountain Lakes High, knows he wants to apply to college early, but has yet to target one school.

"A lot of college-admissions officers say that your chances aren't any better ... but I was looking over the stats, and it seems to me as though it is easier to get in," Mr. Magyar said.

Mr. Magyar may be on to something. Applying early would appear to give qualified students an edge at some colleges. But admissions officers say it all depends on where students apply, the number of seats available, and the quality of other students who are applying in the same pool.

At Johns Hopkins, where the average applicant has an impressive combined SAT score of 1420, 55 percent of the 400 or 500 prospective students who apply for early decisions are accepted, said Paul T. White, the director of undergraduate admissions. About 31 percent of the 9,000 students who apply during the regular cycle are accepted.

"We feel that students who apply via early decision ... are telling us that we are their first choice," Mr. White said.

The tricky part for applicants is trying to project which schools weight early applications heavily. A handful of highly competitive schools are accepting more than half their freshmen through early-decision and early-action procedures. But it is more common for schools to admit 30 percent of their incoming classes early.

"Most colleges cannot tell you what percentages of early-decision or early-action [candidates] they are going to admit," said Joyce E. Smith, the executive director of the National Association for College Admission Counseling in Alexandria, Va. "They have to wait and see what the quality is like and numbers in that pool."

Most admissions officers advise students who apply early and are turned down to wait it out. Many schools put rejected applicants on a waiting list or add them to the regular pool for re-evaluation.

One drawback for early-bird applicants is that many colleges cannot predict how much need-based aid they will have by the time early-decision students are making their choices.

"My concern ... is that this will exacerbate the gap between those who have and those who have not," said Joe Allen, the dean of admissions at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Students who rely on such aid to go to college may have to avoid early-decision plans for that reason, he said.

Moreover, high school counselors in school districts serving low-income and minority students often aren't familiar with such policies, Mr. Allen said. They are so overworked that they lack the time to navigate the maze of definitions and rules each college puts forth on early-decision and early-action plans.

"The fact that there are so many versions [of the policies] is a reason to hold a moratorium," Mr. Allen argued. "When you say 'early decision,' you could mean one of 10 things."

Regardless of the reason, early-decision programs are not for everyone, many experts agree.

A college counselor stopped Leah McIntyre, 18, from taking the early-decision option at her original college of choice and saved her from making a big mistake. "I was determined to go to Rutgers [the State University of New Jersey Camden Campus]," Ms. McIntyre said. "I wasn't even going to apply to other schools."

Then Ms. McIntyre visited Ramapo College of New Jersey in Mahwah, a small, public liberal arts school, and changed her mind.

"It will be a lot easier to get to know people [at Ramapo College] than at Rutgers, where there are between 20,000 and 30,000 students," Ms. McIntyre said. And, she said, Ramapo "is a much safer environment."

Vol. 19, Issue 2, Pages 1,11

Web Resources
  • Early Decision and Early Action as defined by the College Board.
  • Thinking College Early, a program made possible by the U.S. Department of Education, attempts to assist low-income families with college planning with the hope that more lower-income students will succeed in the college application process.
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