College admissions: the two words that, come autumn, every senior fears. The competition to get into a prestigious college has been growing every year, putting pressure on students to do whatever it takes, from packing more AP’s to a course load to trying to get a jump on everyone, to be accepted.
In a move that shook the world of college admissions five years ago, the prestigious ivies Harvard and Princeton abolished their long-standing early decision programs in an attempt to equalize the admissions process for underrepresented and underprivileged students. According to a Sept. 12, 2006 Boston Globe article, in explaining their policy changes, the colleges cited the disadvantages of early decision for all students — low-income students were less likely to apply because of the overall lack of awareness that such an option even existed. The colleges aimed to calm down the frenzy of the college admissions process, as “it seemed that early admission was the gasoline on the fire,” the former dean of admissions at Harvard stated in the article.
Although colleges have progressed considerably from their early tradition of catering almost exclusively to the rich, the early admissions process still poses a barrier to underprivileged students. According to Cornell president Hunter Rawlings, early admissions “historically…has been an upper-middle-class white students from the Northeast phenomenon.” Because early decision is a binding contract — students are required to matriculate if accepted to their early decision college — students are unable to compare the financial aid packages they are offered. “The risk of not being able to afford tuition is too high if I apply early decision to a college and am accepted,” senior Kimberly Wong said, who decided the risk outweighed the benefits of applying early to a school.
Rather than serve its intended function as an optional process for students who are dead-set on one college, early admission has become, in many students’ minds, more of an obligation, a means of increasing one’s chances of getting in to a reputable school. The number of college applicants has grown every year while the number of spots available has remained virtually constant, thus increasing the pressure many students feel to find a “foothold” into competitive schools. As early programs become the norm, many students worry that there will be less slots later. According to a study by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, 65 percent of colleges increased acceptances through early decision, and 73 percent of colleges admitted more early action applicants last year.
The college process should be a time for self-exploration, a process for students to figure out what type of school suits them, yet it has become more of a strategic game. With the exception of students who found their “dream college” early, the looming November deadline detracts from seniors’ last year in high school — time they should be spending exploring their courses rather than cramming to get an application finished in time. This intensifies the already cut-throat environment that the college admissions process breeds every fall. Additionally, those who do apply early can be adversely affected if they have rushed into commiting to one school without exploring wider options.
In the end, early programs seem to benefit the colleges themselves more than they do students. In the constant rat race for colleges to boost rankings in publications such as U.S. News, schools want to lock in the most competitive students. Many schools seek to fill a large portion of their entering class in the early application round; last year, competitive schools like John Hopkins and Bowdoin accepted almost 40 percent of their freshman class through early decision. Because a factor in determining college ranking is the selectivity of a college, accepting more students early would thus decrease regular decision percentages. The University of Pennsylvania has used early decision since the 1970s to increase their rankings, according to a September 2001 article in The Atlantic.
The 2006 attempt of Harvard and Princeton to equalize the college admissions process has undoubtedly failed, as the two have since re-joined the ranks of the over four hundred colleges that continued to offer early admissions, according to the College Board. Just this past February, these leading universities announced that they would reinstate their early options, though in the tweaked form of Single Choice Restrictive Early Action. “In eliminating our early program…we hoped other colleges and universities would do the same and they haven’t,” the president of Princeton, Shirley Tilghman, said in a Feb. 24, 2011 New York Times article to explain the university’s change of policy.
The only way to implement a fairer screening of applicants is to have one unified regular deadline. One deadline would eliminate the disadvantage to underprivileged students and the added stress of early programs, leaving a simpler, clear-cut admissions process. With increasing admissions selectivity, along with the weight of tuition hikes and school stress on every senior’s plate, simplicity in applying to colleges sounds like a breath of fresh air.
A version of this article first appeared in the Nov. 4, 2011 print edition of The Lowell.