Today’s Wall Street Journal article, The Decision That Hurts Your Chances of Getting Into Harvard, just confirmed what I have been hearing anecdotally from the seniors and the college counselors at my son’s high school. The bottom line is that if you don’t apply early decision to a school, you’re not getting in. Full stop. As slim as the odds of getting into an Ivy League college are if you apply early, they are far, far slimmer if you apply regular decision.
When it comes to applying to college, we have stopped thinking about what is best for our kids. Instead we have been refocused on what’s good for the schools; or rather what is good for the business of schooling.
This system is broken.
The odds of getting into top colleges have long been falling off a cliff. In fact, it almost seems to have become a point of pride for some schools to see just how low their acceptance rates can go. They spend lots of money encouraging kids to apply and lots of money rejecting the vast majority of them.
Tonight the Ivies will be coming out with their regular decisions and there are going to be a lot of disappointed kids. According to the Wall Street Journal article, Dartmouth accepted half of their class under early admit and that statistic is not unusual among top tier schools, “Large proportions of…incoming first-year classes were locked in months ago under early-admittance programs.” Last year “Harvard admitted 14.5% of early-action applicants and about 3.3% of regular-decision applicants.” That figure was 3.3%, did you catch that?
Let’s try a dating analogy; at the tender age of 17 you visit many fine schools but feel like you just haven’t fallen in love with any one in particular, so you decide to play the field and send out a sensible number of regular decision applications. Well, here’s a wake-up call; apparently many of the top schools aren’t interested in dating you, they are determined to put a ring on your finger before you have a chance to dilly dally somewhere else. The kids don’t really love the colleges to which they’ve applied early decision, they’re just worried that the schools will settle down with someone else, and they decide to optimize their chances by committing far earlier than they might have otherwise.
I get it, securing a large portion of the class early lets schools plan for their regular admissions decisions and predict their yield (the share of admitted students who actually enroll).
It may work for the schools but does it work for the kids?
More and more desperate, high school seniors are applying early to try to distinguish themselves from the pack. It’s a game and those with the sophistication to play it are rewarded and those who don’t need to to consider financial aid packages are positioned better.
But, most students get no benefit from this system, and I would argue that in the end, neither the schools nor the students win.
Let’s try getting back to thinking about what’s best for the kids. Why not let them look around, apply to a coterie of schools that appeal to them, and then decide which of the schools who wanted them are the best fit for them financially, academically and socially. Remove some of the time-crunch hysteria and allow reasoned, thoughtful decision-making. Because of early decision not only has the process become harder it has become increasingly fraught and decidedly frenetic.
Neither of my older sons applied early decision because, given their indecisiveness, which I saw as a natural off-shoot of their youth, they simply needed more time to make decisions. After all the effort they had expended during their high school tenure, they wanted choices. I don’t blame them. They wanted to apply to a number of schools that interested them so that when and if they got in, they could compare the schools knowing that the decision they had to make was real, not hypothetical.
My youngest son may have no choice, literally no choice. In a press release announcing last year’s early-action admits, the admissions dean at Harvard called early admission the “new normal.”
But, where does that new normal leave our kids?