The Big Push

By Emily Gold / January / February 2000
October 24th, 2007
As Ivy League schools compete ever more intensely for the best high-school seniors, applying to top colleges has become a kind of convoluted chess game. Students apply to more schools earlier than ever, trying to manipulate variations in admission policies to give them the best edge at their first-choice college without jeopardizing their positionat fall-back schools. Not content to wait to hear from colleges until the spring of their senior year, many now hope to sew up spots at their choice schools by Christmas.

Until this past fall, Brown's admission policies discouraged this trend by accepting early-admission applications only from students who agreed to refrain from applying early to any other school. This kept things simple; students seeking early admission to Brown or Harvard, which had the same policy, really wanted to go to that school. At the same time, applying early to Brown did not prevent the applicant from filing a regular application later at Harvard or anywhere else. According to Michael Goldberger, Brown's director of admission, the intention was to make senior year a more relaxed time for a high-school student whose top choice was Brown. "Now," he adds, deciding when and where to apply is "a strategy."

Last year Brown and Harvard (along with Georgetown, who shared the same policy) reversed themselves: students applying for early admission can now apply early to as many schools as they want, as long as the other schools do not make students promise to enroll if accepted. (The other Ivies, for example, require early applicants to make just such a promise.) As a result, the number of early applications to Brown jumped 65 percent last fall, while Harvard saw a 25 percent increase. "I expected it to go up," Goldberger says, "but [to] nowhere near this extent." (Brown's new financial-aid policy - see "The Payoff," Elms, March/April - may also have contributed to the increase, he speculates.)

Why the change? Brown, Harvard, and Georgetown were the only universities in the country to require exclusivity from early applicants without requiring them to enroll if accepted early. The three schools were persuaded by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) that their quirky policies were confusing to students. Especially affected, the association argued, were seniors at schools without sophisticated advising services. "Savvy counselors and kids know the ins and outs," says Marcia Hunt, past NACAC president and director of college counseling at Pine Crest School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. "There are many schools for whom counseling is not a priority, nor even provided."

Many high-school counselors are happy with the change. The new policy, says Charlie Alexander, academic dean at the Groton School in Groton, Massachusetts, "gives kids more elbow room." Last year, he explains, a student whose first choice was Brown but who was not accepted early, spent winter vacation applying to Georgetown and other schools. Now such a student can apply to both early and know in December whether his college-application process is over.

Any change in college- admission policies is charged with social significance. Some worry that the new policy gives privileged students yet another boost. Will average kids look less appealing now that the best students can apply early to many schools? "The typical applicant probably feels more compelled to apply early now," says the NACAC's Hunt. Another fear is that moving the whole college-application process forward will favor students at traditional Ivy League feeder schools. Inner-city guidance counselors, Goldberger notes, often spend more time talking students out of dropping out than examining college-admission strategies. "Some people," he says, "are saying that [early admission] has become a planning opportunity for the wealthy schools."

The effects of early admission policies are serious enough for the NACAC and the College Board to appoint a joint committee to examine them. The committee, on which Goldberger serves, has been asked to standardize and refine the process. "This is going to be a real hot issue," says Hunt. "It's going to be interesting to see what's next down the line."

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January / February 2000