January 24, 2002

Early Decision Raises Questions

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Discussion over early admissions policies recently resurfaced when Yale University President Richard C. Levin proposed last semester that the Ivy League colleges consider abandoning the use of early decision.

“If we all got rid of it, it would be a good thing,” said Levin, in a Dec. 13 article in The New York Times. He claims that early decision puts unnecessary pressure on students too early in their high school careers.

With many colleges and universities admitting 30 to 40 percent of entering classes early, some worry that early decision policies leave little room for students applying through regular decision. In terms of race and financial means, regular decision applicants tend to be a more heterogeneous group than early decision candidates, according to Henrik N. Dullea ’61, vice president for University relations.

College administrators and officials are concerned about the racial and socioeconomic biases that have been linked to early decision policies. In the Times article, Cornell President Hunter R. Rawlings III pointed out that “historically, for the most part, it has been an upper-middle-class white students from the Northeast phenomenon.”

But Rawlings, along with several other Cornell administrators interviewed, maintained that early decision has an important role to play in the admissions process, benefiting applicants and colleges alike.

According to the Times, he viewed “early decision as an effective way to help some students make up their minds early and avoid the pressures of making multiple applications to different colleges.”

Cornell officials contend that the University avoids the potential pitfalls of early decision by limiting the number of students it admits early.

“We have offered a much smaller number of students admission through early decision than Yale and other Ivies,” Dullea said. “That was a conscious decision. We admit about one-third of the class early, which is right for Cornell.”

“We don’t want to limit the quality or diversity of the class by taking too many early,” Dullea explained. “We don’t see early decision applicants as being as diversified as entire freshman class, so there is a certain trade-off.”

“If you [admitted] a large proportion of freshman class [early] it would be a problem — but we don’t do that at Cornell, so we think it is working pretty well for us at the present level,” he added.

As outlined by Dullea, Cornell’s position is that the advantages of early decision outweigh its flaws. For that reason, Cornell will not be joining Yale in rethinking its use of the policy.

“It makes sense for students who know clearly what school they want to attend to apply early and make a commitment,” Dullea said. “That is not true for most students. We use it to reach out to students who are strongly committed to coming to Cornell.”

Prof. Glenn Altschuler, dean of continuing education, concurs with Dullea.

“Early decision serves an important purpose for colleges and applicants if it is used well by both,” Altschuler said. “It can be a terrific option that allows students who have identified the institution they want to attend to save time and money and to indicate their interest in the college.”

That argument is based on the assumption that early decision policies will not be abused. In his Jan. 19 column in the Times’ Education Life, Altschuler raised questions about the potential for exploitation on the part of college admissions officers.

“One way to increase an institution’s national ranking is by appearing selective, so some administrators have turned to admissions as a way to move up the charts,” Altschuler wrote. “One unscrupulous trick is to encourage weak students to apply so that when they are rejected, the institution looks more selective. More responsible managers have realized that early decision can enhance a university’s statistics by increasing the yield (the percentage of accepted students who actually attend), a key measure of selectivity.”

Altschuler cites several other concerns. “The very top students don’t tend to apply early, nor do less-well-off students who want to compare financial aid packages. Children of alumni do apply in disproportionate numbers. As a result, early-decision applicants tend to be less racially and economically diverse than the regular pool,” he writes.

Despite his criticism of the policy, Altschuler does not believe that Cornell should stop using early decision. “Cornell doesn’t need to respond [to Yale’s move to abandon the policy]. Cornell’s response should be to decide what’s best for Cornell. Besides, he pointed out, you don’t get rid of a practice because it’s subject to abuses. You get rid of the abuses.”

Moreover, Altschuler does not share Levin’s concern that early decision exacerbates the pressure and frenzy that saturate the college search process by pushing the decision into the junior year of high school.

“Kids are thinking about college from the time that they come out of the womb,” Altschuler said. “Early decision doesn’t change that either way.”sd

Archived article by Erica Gilbert-Levin