The Early Decision Rebellion: Yale and Stanford Are Eliminating a Controversial Admissions Policy, but the Competitive Pressure Is Still on for Students Who Want to Get into Elite Schools

Article excerpt

Byline: Barbara Kantrowitz

Rance Barber, a 17-year-old senior at New Trier High School on Chicago's North Shore, seems like a perfect candidate to apply to Stanford University through its Early Decision program. Both parents are enthusiastic alumni (which makes him a "legacy," often an advantage for early applicants). And Stanford is a good fit academically since Barber wants to study engineering, one of Stanford's many strengths. But Barber's application was not one of about 2,400 that poured into Stanford's admissions office in the past few weeks. Despite pressure from school counselors to take advantage of his legacy status, Barber isn't ready to make the commitment to attend Stanford if he's accepted--a requirement under the school's binding Early Decision policy. Instead, he's working on regular-decision applications to Stanford, Cornell, Harvey Mudd, Northwestern and maybe Harvard. "I wanted to see other campuses, see what my options were," he says. An avid golfer and cocaptain of New Trier's team, he's also worried about getting a chance to play at Stanford, a Division I school. "There's nothing I would love better than for my son to go to Stanford," says his mother, Linda. But she backs Rance's choice to resist the Early Decision pressure.

A year from now, undecided seniors like Barber might feel a little less stress as they make their college choices. Last week both Stanford and Yale University announced that they would drop their binding Early Decision policies for the class of 2008 (now juniors in high school). It was the equivalent of a major earthquake in the hyperintense world of selective-college admissions, and aftershocks could follow if other schools make the same move. Over the past five years, Early Decision has become increasingly popular among applicants to top schools. This year's round is expected to be the most competitive ever, a significant source of anxiety for students, parents and counselors. Students feel compelled to "go early" or lose out--even if they're not sure about the schools they're applying to.

Some of the pressure comes from colleges that have been upfront about giving Early Decision applicants an edge. One study indicated that the advantage could be the equivalent of an extra 100 points on the SAT. Early Decision lets schools lock in students and increase their "yield," the percentage of accepted students who enroll. Many schools also say that early applicants are the most active on campus. But applying early means pushing up the college search to junior or even sophomore year. Critics also say it favors richer kids, who don't need to compare financial-aid packages from a number of schools.

The Early Decision rebellion has been brewing since last December, when Yale's president, Richard Levin, began speaking out about the pressures on students and families. Earlier this year three institutions--Beloit College in Wisconsin, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Mary Washington College in Virginia--announced that they were dropping Early Decision. UNC and Beloit switched this fall to Early Action (glossary), which isn't binding. But everyone was looking to see what Yale and other elite private schools would do. Levin says Yale waited until after this year's Nov. 1 early deadline to announce that it, too, would switch to Early Action. And a few hours after the news reached the West Coast, Stanford rushed out its Early Action announcement. Robin Mamlet, Stanford's admissions dean, said the choice had been made weeks earlier. "Even though I think Early Decision is a very responsible way to run part of your admission program," Mamlet says, "I think the [human] cost is too great right now."

According to a survey by the College Board, which runs the SATs, more than 67,000 students applied under Early Decision last year, compared with more than 41,000 in 1997. At some highly selective schools, students who apply in the regular admission cycle have as little as a 1 in 10 chance of getting in. …