Last Wednesday both Yale and Stanford universities independently announced that they would be changing their binding early admissions policies for next year’s applicants, replacing their early decision programs with non-binding early action programs. The announcement came five days after the Nov. 1 deadline for this year’s early decision applicants and will take effect in 2003.

Georgetown recently made changes in its own early action policy, removing the requirement that students applying in the early action cycle at Georgetown not apply for early decision at other schools.

“Early decision programs help colleges more than applicants,” Yale University President Richard C. Levin said in a recent press release. “It is our hope to take pressure off students in the early cycle and restore a measure of reasoned choice to college admissions.”

Stanford gave similar reasons for changing its policies. “We have been deeply concerned about the tremendous pressures that talented young people face as they apply to colleges like Stanford,” Stanford President John Hennessy said. “We believe this is the right thing to do for Stanford and for our prospective students.”

Both universities have adopted early action programs similar to those already in effect in a growing number of colleges, including Georgetown and Harvard. Early action allows students to apply and receive an answer during the fall of their senior year, but does not require the students to make any binding commitment to attend until the regular May deadline.

Previously, early decision programs allowed applicants to apply in the fall of their senior year, provided they made the legally binding commitment to attend the university if accepted. Early decision is still used in every Ivy League university except Yale and Harvard and in a number of other highly selective schools.

Early decision programs were originally designed for students who knew exactly where they wanted to go to college by the start of their senior year in high school. Although most early decision programs were originally intended to recruit a small number of dedicated students, they have become very popular over the last few years as the college application process has become more competitive. Their growing popularity has become the subject of a nationwide debate, with many arguing that the original purpose of the programs has been lost, and that when colleges force students to accept their offers they limit the students’ choices and add unnecessary stress to the college application process.

“Early admission has become a strategic question instead of a way for students to apply early to the school they’ve always wanted to go to,” John McGowan, director of operations at the Georgetown University Office of Undergraduate Admissions, said.

Because the statistical odds tend to be a little better for those applying under early decision, many high school seniors apply early, not because they have always wanted to go to the university, but because they think it will improve their chances. This strategy, according to many college admissions officers, goes against the fundamental purpose of early admissions.

Early decision programs have also been accused of favoring applicants from more privileged backgrounds. Critics argue that applicants from secondary schools with a high degree of post-graduate advising are more able to complete and send off applications by the early deadlines. They also argue that early decision is biased against students relying on financial aid, since it does not allow students to compare financial aid offers from a variety of schools.

“It’s a good thing to see people moving toward the idea of early action,” McGowan said, referring to Yale and Stanford’s switch to the non-binding program. He believes the changes will “call the early decision process into question, and will result in more people acquiring the information they need in order to make the right decisions.”

Although Georgetown still strongly urges early action applicants not to apply to early decision programs elsewhere, it no longer retains the legal right to disqualify those who do. The changes came in compliance with revised guidelines that the National Association for College Admission Counseling issued last year.

Even with the recent changes, Yale and Stanford still require early applicants to refrain from applying to any other early admissions program. “We had hoped to enter into conversations with the National Association for College Admission Counseling . however, we felt it was important to also signal our intent and to provide applicants and families with as much information as possible,” Robin Mamlet, Stanford’s dean of undergraduate admission and financial aid, said.

McGowan said that although the recent changes will not have a direct impact on Georgetown admissions, he expects that in the future, as more colleges move away from early decision, more students will apply to Georgetown. He added that, although the Office of Undergraduate Admissions does not yet have final numbers for this year, the applicant pool for early action has definitely grown, from about 4,400 applicants last year to well over 5,100 this year.

McGowan said the “main reason [for the increase in early action applications this year] is that Georgetown remains an incredibly popular place to apply.” He said the increase, however, is more indicative of Georgetown’s strong reputation than of changes in the early action policies.

According to McGowan, Georgetown would be accepting the same percentage of early applicants this year as it accepted regular decision applicants last year. “There’s a temptation to accept more early applications,” McGowan said, “but we hold the line to make sure we are fair to regular decision applicants.” Georgetown will accept 21 percent of the early applicants, or roughly 900 students. It will accept 3,000 students overall, and of those it expects that about 50 percent will choose to attend.

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