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Posted at 12:05 PM ET, 11/29/2010

Early admission here to stay at local universities

By Daniel de Vise

When surveying the landscape of early college admissions this fall, the terms "comeback" and "rebound" invariably come to mind. Early applications are up at the vast majority of schools that offer multiple deadlines, based on an informal survey I conducted last week.

Of course, college applications are up generally, so rising numbers shouldn't come as much of a surprise. But four years ago, there was talk of a full-scale retreat from early admissions, following the lead of Harvard, Princeton and the University of Virginia.

The three schools ended their early admission programs more or less in tandem, announcing to the higher education world that they considered the two-deadline system another potential disadvantage to the disadvantaged.

The roots of the retreat go back further.

Any shift in admission policies at the top national universities sets the tone for the rest of the industry and affects the prospects of the nation's best high school students. If Harvard or Yale offers an early admission option and tells applicants not to apply anywhere else, several thousand will happily accept those terms.

In 2002, both Stanford and Yale loosened the terms of their early admission programs, so that students they accepted early were no longer required to attend. That put them in league with Harvard, with all three schools offering non-binding early action rather than binding early decision. Princeton, by contrast, retained early decision.

In 2006, Princeton and Harvard ended early admission altogether, both schools saying they deemed any early-admission program unfair to disadvantaged students. U-Va. followed suit, ending its early decision program, a significant symbolic move for one of the premiere public universities.

Four years later, Stanford and Yale carry on with non-binding early action programs, with one caveat: students who apply early to either school cannot apply anywhere else. That limitation ensures the schools get a high yield of admitted students who choose to attend.

U-Va. announced this month that it would reinstate early admissions. The rationale: the university was swapping the abandoned early decision program for early action, an endeavor that carries far less ethical baggage.

Early decision favors the rich, at least in theory, because only rich folk can afford to forego the customary comparison-shopping process of sorting offers of admission and financial aid from multiple schools. Early action preserves the option of choosing a school early but also leaves students free to shop around later.

Harvard is also revisiting its decision to end early admissions, although officials there were careful to point out that they had long-since planned a comprehensive review of the decision.

Harvard might have a harder time justifying a return to early admission. The program Harvard killed four years ago was early action, the ethically favored model. Would they simply reinstate the same program? If so, why?

Most universities in the Washington vicinity never wavered in their early admission programs. By my count, roughly a dozen big-name schools in the Washington region offer each of the two early-admission alternatives, early decision or early action.

I charted data for a dozen schools in an article over the weekend, showing double-digit increases in applications at most of them.

Two more schools, George Mason and James Madison universities, sent me their early admission data today.

Here is the complete file, with GMU and JMU added. I'll insert more schools if I get them.

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By Daniel de Vise  | November 29, 2010; 12:05 PM ET
Categories:  Admissions  | Tags:  Early admission, GMU early action, JMU early action, college admissions, early action, early decision  
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As a college consultant, I have never been a fan of early decision. Most students are not ready to make a final commitment in December, it is a disadvantage to anyone who needs financial aid, and many students choose this option after visiting only one or two schools. It is disappointing to see that early decision applications are up at so many schools. Just one more thing to add further stress to the college admissions process.

Susie Watts
Denver, Colorado

Posted by: collegedirection | November 29, 2010 10:51 PM | Report abuse

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