Magazine article Newsweek

An Education in Cynicism: Colleges' Early-Admissions Policies Serve Their Interests-But Not Those of Students or Society

Magazine article Newsweek

An Education in Cynicism: Colleges' Early-Admissions Policies Serve Their Interests-But Not Those of Students or Society

Article excerpt

Byline: Robert J. Samuelson

College admissions in America has become an overwrought and frenzied ritual, driven by the anxieties of striving students and middle-class parents who worry that if Stephen and Suzie don't get into the "right" college their lives will be ruined. This is a myth, but one hard to demolish and especially at this time of year, when most applications are being completed. Worse, all the pressures and absurdities of the process are now needlessly magnified by colleges that resort more and more to "early admissions"--a practice rightly characterized as a "racket" by writer James Fallows in a recent Atlantic Monthly.

The most selective colleges and universities sin the most. In the fall of 2000, there were about 1.2 million entering freshmen at four-year schools. Of these, only 163,004 applied for early admissions, according to the College Board. But Harvard routinely admits 55 to 60 percent of its freshman class early; at the University of Pennsylvania the proportion is 40 to 50 percent. The College Board found 41 schools where the share exceeded 30 percent and 464 four-year schools--a fourth of the total--that offered some sort of early admissions. (Early admissions means that students submit their applications before the standard January deadline and are typically admitted in December or January, rather than in the spring.)

Let us now count early admissions' drawbacks:

It's unfair, because it discriminates against students who apply later. A study of 14 of the country's most selective schools by researchers at Harvard found that applying early gave students a significant advantage, equal to about a 100-point jump in their SAT scores. (The researchers couldn't reveal schools' names, but they presumably included many Ivies and schools like Amherst and Stanford.)

It forces students to make premature choices about where to apply. They haven't visited enough schools, talked to enough friends, thought about it enough. "There's a tremendous growth that occurs in the 12th grade," says Dean Strassburger, a college counselor at Lincoln Park High School in Chicago. "Early decision is rushing this along."

It inflicts unnecessary cruelty. Getting rejected once is bad enough. Now students can get rejected twice. The most selective schools still don't accept most early-admissions candidates. Harvard admits about one in six (the acceptance rate for "regular" admissions is about one in 18).

It worsens "senioritis"--the academic letdown after college acceptances are received. "A lot of these kids, the second they get their decisions, are in your office saying, 'I want to drop Modern European History'," says Scott White, a guidance counselor at Montclair High School in New Jersey.

Sure, students accepted under early admissions benefit. Their ordeal is over. But in general, the practice has "adverse effects on high-school students," says Yale president Richard C. Levin. Although Yale now admits about 40 percent of its class through early decision, Levin has become an open (and rare) critic among college and university leaders. …

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