After dropping early admissions programs four years ago, Harvard and Princeton reinstated them this year. They received a large number of applicants, which comes as no surprise, but institutions that never ended their early action programs are experiencing increased numbers, as well. “We’re seeing more and more students applying by early action simply to get answers earlier,” notes Tom Weede, chair of NACAC’s Admission Practices Committee and vice president for enrollment at Butler University (Ind.). He has heard from several high school guidance counselors who have finished writing recommendation letters sooner than in the past.
But while he’s seen “a higher and higher percentage of students applying by Early Action” since the economic downturn in 2009, more are waiting to accept.
He believes financial aid packages are playing a critical part in the decision making process for families. “One of the things that keeps me awake is the images of universities in lockstep raising tuition,” he says. “We’re all going to go over a cliff at the same time. I’ve been afraid of that for a while, but people say it hasn’t happened yet. Things have a different feel than they did before.”
Since last year, St. Lawrence University (N.Y.) has allowed students to declare their Early Decision intentions up until the regular admissions deadline of February 1. The completed application is evaluated and the student is notified before the usual mid-March timeframe. Students who visit the campus after the ED deadline of November 1 can still take advantage of ED by submitting a contract stating their intention to enroll. Early Decision students are evaluated on their own merits without concern about the number to whom admission is being offered, explains Vice President and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Jeffrey Rickey. As of the regular deadline, “we evaluate students on their own merits, but they also all are being compared to the overall applicant pool, and choices are being made because we can only admit the number that we believe will yield the class size we seek.”
“Students are often entering the admission process assuming they are ‘applying early something’ and then trying to figure out where,” cautions college admissions consultant and author Matthew Greene, of Howard Greene & Associates. “At first, they don’t really understand the differences among the early plans.”
He points out a common critique of early plans is that first-generation and low-income students might not understand them enough to use them to their advantage. As he is counseling students applying to college, he reminds them that early action plans benefit the institutions in their efforts to shape the incoming class. “Students must seek to apply to the right colleges that fit their needs and interests, and then look at strategies—application plans—as a piece of the puzzle, rather than letting such plans drive their own planning and college list,” Greene says. Campus leaders, he says, would do well to keep that in mind, too.