March 27, 2001

Brown Goes to Binding Early Admissions Policy

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In a dramatic shift that reverses a long-standing policy initiated over 25 years ago, Brown University’s early action admission policy will be replaced by early decision, Interim President Sheila E. Blumstein announced last month.

The change, effective for the Class of 2006, will leave Harvard as the only Ivy League school offering non-binding early action admission.

“External changes in admissions practice and a dramatic increase in early applicants to Brown have altered the rationale for early action,” Blumstein said in an official statement.

Early decision, in contrast to early action, is a binding agreement, and students may only apply initially to one school. From now on, students accepted early to Brown will be notified by mid-December and are then obligated to attend.

Previously, students accepted early action to Brown could postpone their decision until May, after hearing from other schools.

“While an early decision policy now seems closer to Brown’s original intent, it is fair to say that Brown is making this change with some reluctance,” Blumstein added.

The old policy was intended for students who had identified Brown as one of their top choices, but instead it became a means for students to cover their bases and then apply to other schools, said Michael Goldberger, Brown’s director of admissions.

“Early action became a standard admission strategy, an early testing of the waters,” Goldberger said in an administrative news statement. “Clearly, we are now evaluating application materials from thousands of students who have not yet narrowed their sights on Brown,” he added.

The early action policy was also straining the admissions staff.

Applications to Brown have skyrocketed since the ruling in 1999 by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) that students could apply to more than one early action school.

In two years Brown saw a 65 percent increase in the early candidate pool. This year numbers of early applications rose to an unprecedented 5,242, which created an overwhelming workload for the staff.

“Despite the large increase in numbers of applicants, the staff in the admissions department did not increase,” said Tracie Sweeney, senior associate director for Brown University’s News Bureau.

She added that the change, though likely to decrease the size of the applicant pool, may boost the overall acceptance yield by helping the school identify candidates who see themselves as a good match for Brown.

In the wake of accepting this change, Brown officials continue to discuss whether the school will also begin to offer full need-blind admissions.

“Brown has been investigating the pursuit of a full need-blind admissions policy for a number of years. The process is currently under review,” Sweeney said.

The “volatility of the financial aid budget” may increase by having a certain percentage of the class committed under early decision, Goldberger predicted.

In this way, need-blind admissions could become more feasible, Goldberger said, because Brown could better predict its yield and extend its financial aid budget further while still spending the same amount of money.

Brown’s incoming president, Ruth Simmons, had requested that Brown did not make the need-blind decision until after she takes office July 1.

Brown is currently the only Ivy League school not offering need-blind admissions for all domestic applicants. The university is need-blind for approximately 90 percent of accepted students.

Concerned that the increased numbers of applicants accepted under binding early admission policies will put pressure on high school seniors to make premature college decisions, the NACAC has formed a joint task force with The College Board to reevaluate the guidelines for early admission.

Despite this initiative, changing the early admissions guidelines is not a high priority, because only a small number of schools would be affected, said Mark R. Cannon, deputy executive director for NACAC.

There are only about 450 colleges in the country with early admissions options — a relatively small number in comparison to the near 7000 schools that NACAC represents.

“There is currently no limit on early admission acceptance percentages, and there is no real consensus emerging to make a change in this direction anytime soon,” Cannon said.

Since Brown’s decision to make the switch to a binding policy, Harvard is the only Ivy still offering applicants the choice of early action.

Harvard has expressed no intention of changing its early action policy.

“We are very well served by our early action program,” Marlyn McGrath-Lewis, Harvard’s Office of Admission director, told The Crimson.

“Our Faculty Committee believes strongly in the education principle that it is important for students to have the benefit of the senior year before committing finally to a college,” McGrath-Lewis said.

Henrik N. Dullea ’61, vice president for University relations at Cornell predicted that Brown’s switch would not significantly impact the size or caliber of other applicant pools in the Ivy League.

He added that Harvard’s decision to maintain its early action policy makes sense given its traditionally high yield rate.

“Harvard’s situation is unique,” Dullea said, predicting that while Harvard enjoys an 80 percent admissions yield, Brown’s admissions office was probably doing more work for less return.

Echoing the sentiment that students should make a conscious decision about their first college choice when they apply early, Dullea said that Cornell is firm in its binding policy.

“Cornell is comfortable with early decision,” Dullea said, pointing out that this year the University accepted just over 35 percent of its early applicant pool.

This number is consistent with the University’s past record, but at the lower end of the Ivy League early admittance percentages, Dullea said, recalling that some Ivies accepted enough students to fill close to half of the freshman class under early decision.

“We tend to keep our [percentage] of early acceptances on the lower end of the Ivy League,” Dullea added, explaining that a large part of undergraduate diversity comes from the regular spring applicant pool.

Archived article by Jennifer Roberts