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Community Life
Leading for the Common Good

The Early Decision Debate

Brennan Barnard
The world of college admission is ruled by competing interests. There is an inherent tension between serving students and maintaining sustainable schools. At the fulcrum of this tension are admission officers and high school counselors, trying to do their jobs, do them ethically, and in ways that both promote justice and engagement. To be sure, educators on both ends of the admission experience see different realities and serve different masters. As a school counselor, my primary focus is the success and well being of students. While admission deans likewise care about applicants, they are charged with maintaining healthy institutions. We can appreciate the differences in how we approach the admission experience, while also engaging in healthy dialogue about these tensions.

The University of Virginia (UVA) recently announced that it is adding a binding Early Decision (ED) application option with an October 15 deadline, under which students agree to attend if admitted. This news has once again struck the beehive of debate within the admission profession.

A School Counselor’s Take
October 15th is simply too early for many seventeen-year-olds to decide where they want to go to college. I feel the same way about this as I do about back to school sales at the end of June, snow blowers for sale in August, or Halloween decorations in stores before Labor Day. Everybody is eager to move product, but let’s face it, early deadlines for college admission really are designed to benefit colleges, not students. Sure, it is nice for some kids to know early in their senior year that they have a college acceptance locked in. But that nicety is far outweighed by the myriad reasons that the creep of early applications is detrimental. Binding early decision policies are the worst of these evils, raising issues of both access and anxiety.

Access
At some colleges, it is encouraging that early application pools look almost identical to Regular Decision in terms of low income/Pell-eligible students, first-generation to attend college applicants, and students of color. These colleges have been able to realize this goal with deep pockets and healthy financial aid budgets. However, as the use of merit scholarships and tuition discounting increase nationwide, the realities of ED at the majority of colleges with fewer resources create an unlevel playing field. The national average for discounting is now over 50%, and a growing number of colleges are filling more than half their incoming class through early applications. This negatively impacts access for the "have-nots."

Despite the rise of community-based organizations and other supports, the reality is that many low-income or under-resourced populations do not have the advantage of being able to visit multiple colleges before applications are submitted. Therefore, their ability to settle so early on a first choice is limited. Many colleges have fly-in programs for underrepresented populations, but they are only capturing a small handful of students and often those with access to extensive counseling. We need more research nationally on the percentage of students from private or well-resourced public schools who submit ED applications, as compared to those from underserved schools and communities. It would also be interesting to know the public/private split in early versus regular admission pools. The inability to compare aid packages for low-income students—and increasingly middle-class students—prevents them from making informed choices and only contributes to the student debt crisis.

Anxiety
It is no secret that mental health is a huge concern on college campuses, and in high schools. In a recent NPR interview, Dr. B. Janet Hibbs and Dr. Anthony Rostain, authors of The Stressed Years of Their Lives,identified college admission as one of the primary stressors for young people. This continues to be troubling, though not surprising. It aligns with evidence found at Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Making Caring Common project about achievement pressure and concern for others and the common good in college admission. While Early Decision is not the singular cause of stress, it certainly contributes to the arms race and to students feeling that they need to game the process.

Increasingly students (again, especially the privileged) are asking "where" they will go to college before they even answer "why" they are going. Because they know that many colleges' early acceptance rates are double those of regular admission applicants, students often focus on the strategy of where they will apply early, rather than which schools are the best match. All that we have been learning about brain development and decision-making suggests that, if anything, we should be giving students more time. We need further research into retention rates, freshman year GPAs, mental health and student engagement, tracking the number of students who were accepted through early versus regular applications.

Early Decision has the unintended consequence of pushing everything earlier in high school, rendering the senior year impotent. Not only do students obsess over college in 9th and 10th grades, but also the second half of senior year lacks engagement and meaning when more than half a class is already into college by December.

If we absolutely want to keep the binding nature of ED and the ability for a student to send a strong message of commitment, perhaps we should have a universal deadline of January 1 and create a simultaneous Binding Decision (BD) option. Like many aspects of admission, we are faced with the increasing tension of doing what is best for the institution versus what is best for the student. There has to be a better system that can protect students and serve schools.

Read Alvin Roth's Who Gets What-and Why. It is an interesting study of matching markets by a Stanford economist. In it, he talks about the unraveling of effective matching markets and how "exploding offers" (ie: ED) can make systems fall apart. We have been seeing college admission rapidly unravel. Even though we talk about the importance of finding the right college match, we are clearly signaling otherwise.

An Admission Director’s Take
College admission deans and directors are not oblivious to these realities and of course, no admission professional wants students to experience undue stress in high school. In the spirit of healthy dialogue, I challenged Rick Clark, the director of undergraduate admission at Georgia Tech, to defend the intricacies of early admission policies from the college perspective. He is active in conversations on the institutional, state and national levels about policy and practice in admission and is known as a straight talker. Clark agrees that colleges “don’t want students to take their foot off the gas in the senior year once they know they’ve been admitted.” And they too are concerned with issues of access, affordability, and equity. He explains that admission professionals “see great value in creating campuses that are socio-economically diverse, geographically diverse, academically diverse, and filled with kids who bring backgrounds and passions of all kinds to discussions in residence halls and classrooms.” He also points out that many schools reinforce these goals in their communication, marketing, recruitment, review, and advocacy efforts on campus and beyond.

But, ultimately, the job of an admission dean or director is to bring in a class of students who will succeed academically, and as Clark explains it, “proliferate the brand of the college, and ensure the revenue generated by tuition is in line with the overall budget. Every year.” He recommends two articles, that eloquently articulate these competing priorities and pressures. The first is “The Hottest Seat on Campus” by The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Eric Hoover. More recently Ken Anselment, vice president for enrollment and communication at Lawrence University, shared his perspective in his piece “Why Do We Do This?”

This is an unprecedented time in college admission (and not just because of the Varsity Blues scandal). As author Jeff Selingo discusses in “How the Great Recession Changed Higher Education Forever,” state appropriations for public universities have continually been reduced. As a result, Clark says that “public institutions with the regional and national brand to attract non-residents, make up for their budget shortfall by looking out of state for more students.” He points to the continuing population decline in the midwest and New England and highlights how, in response, population-dense California now has almost 200 representatives from institutions outside the state who live and recruit there as regional admission officers.

A growing number of colleges are closing their doors or re-examining their mission and viability. In “The Higher Education Apocalypse,” Lauren Camera outlines these challenges and highlights specific cases. She also cites Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen who predicts that as many as half of all universities will close or go bankrupt in the next decade. Clark shares that, “as educators, we may not like to think of our work as a business, but the truth is that if bills are not paid, people lose their jobs.” And this he says is where “Early Decision is useful in securing revenue,” adding “is it a perfect or fair solution? No. Are there sometimes other motivations for having an ED process? Yes, of course. It can serve to lower admit rate, increase yield, and could have implications for some of the methodologies within US News rankings.”

But is UVA in danger of closing? “No,” Clark admits, adding, “they have a different challenge. Since 2008 applications for first-year admission have more than doubled. You know what hasn’t mirrored that growth? Their staff size.” As the director of admission at Georgia Tech, he can relate, because over the last decade their story has been similar.

While acknowledging that holistic admission is not perfect, Clark says it does put value on students’ commitment inside and outside the classroom. He shares,

"It allows admission readers to dig into a student’s background and opportunities; it appreciates nuance, perseverance, and individuality. Families want that, counselors want that, and admission officers want that. But personalizing and individualizing application review demands time. Understanding the differences between school grading scales and curriculum takes time. Reading essays and understanding how a student’s high school experience has prepared them for college takes time. If we were just plugging test scores and GPAs into a formula, we could turn decisions around in a day. But, in a simplistic example, that would mean a student with a 1400 and no demonstrated impact on his community edges out the team captain, hospital volunteer, all-around good person with a 1390. Nobody wants that (except the uninvolved 1400 kid)."

In response to criticism of early application plans, Clark says,

"I get that students, teachers, counselors, and families feel like the timeline is compressed. But to quote The Beatles, ‘Try to see it my way.’ We set a deadline—whether that be November 15 or October 15. Regardless, basically, nobody applies until three days before the deadline. In fact, there are typically more applications submitted four hours before the deadline than four days ahead of it. Once those applications are in, we are on the clock. Financial Aid is breathing down our neck so they can package students. Academic departments want to be able to contact students. And there is a constant concern (particularly among the board, administration, or alumni) that other institutions are moving faster, releasing decisions more quickly, and taking our applicants. If staff size is not changing, and application volume is increasing, what can we change? The timeline. Spread out the submission of applications. One solution is to move the deadline up. One solution is to employ ED. In the case of UVA, it was both. Do I hate them for it? No. I get it. I totally get it."

So, we come back to the tension of doing what is best for the institution versus what is best for the student. The truth is when push comes to shove, school counselors are always going to do what is best for the student. And what about admission deans? Clark says, “we love kids. Many of us have children of our own. But make no mistake about it—the viability and health of our institution is our first priority.”

The summer brings a momentary pause to reflect for educators on both ends of the admission experience. It is also a time when we will talk to colleagues, reimagine our processes, and advocate within our schools for healthier systems that meet conflicting needs. There must be a better way, but it will likely involve both micro changes at the institution level, as well as macro changes within our political and educational systems. How does that all work? It starts with crucial ongoing dialogue among educators committed to working together to find solutions that best serve students and institutions.

Brennan Barnard
Director of College Counseling & Outreach, The Derryfield School
College Admission Program Manager, Harvard Graduate School of Education's Making Caring Common Project
for www.forbes.com
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