In the next two weeks thousands of anxious high school seniors will hear back from their supposed first-choice college if they applied under early admissions programs.

Two types of early admissions programs offer high-schoolers the chance to know if they’re “in” before Christmas. “Early action” programs provide students with non-binding acceptance while “early decision” programs require accepted students to attend that school the following fall.

Following a call by Yale University President Richard Levin two years ago, Yale and Stanford dropped their binding early decision programs in favor of the non-binding (and more student-friendly) early action programs. But to complicate things, Yale, Stanford and Harvard added a “single-choice early action” requirement that applicants could not apply to more than one early action program.

Georgetown offers the most student-friendly option, a “multiple-choice early action” program that allows students to apply to as many early action programs as they wish, but not other early decision programs. It’s one policy that Georgetown gets right in higher education, because it benefits applicants and not admissions officers bent on filling their classes.

Colleges originally devised the early decision program for students who knew their first-choice school early in their senior year, but the system has morphed into an elaborate strategy game that high school students compete in with increasing intensity.

A book by two Harvard economists, Christopher Avery and Richard Zeckhauser, and IBM consultant Andrew Fairbanks last year offered a careful study of “The Early Admissions Game.”What [most people] don’t know,” they concluded after five years of gathering admissions data from 14 elite schools, “is the true `big secret’ of the college admissions process: Applying early dramatically improves an applicant’s chances of admission.”

That original motive for early decision – letting students who know where they want to go find out early – stands moot, the authors found. Interviews with students at Harvard, MIT, Princeton and Yale found that 37 percent of early decision applicants didn’t have a strong first-choice college when they applied to schools.

Early decision has soured college admissions. As higher education officials scratch their heads and wonder how to improve socioeconomic diversity on campuses, they overlook their own admissions policies that favor students from predominantly upper-middle-class schools who have college counselors looking out for them.

And since early decision doesn’t allow students to compare relative financial aid packages, the system benefits those who come from privileged backgrounds. Here, the authors found through interviews that at elite private colleges, 84 percent of students who weren’t applying for financial aid submitted early applications, compared to only 43 percent of students at public schools who needed financial aid. So much for the supposed meritocracy of American higher education.

While leading elite schools have insisted for years that applying early offers no substantial boost, the authors concluded that applying to an elite school early can double or triple a student’s chance of admission, a difference worth up to 100 points higher on the SAT. The effect of applying early is most pronounced at Princeton, where an early decision application can have the same effect as a 200-point jump on the SAT.

This leaves high school seniors with a Faustian bargain: Apply early to improve your chances of acceptance while limiting or reducing your options to attend other schools.

Early action systems try to give students an advantage, but by allowing students to apply to only one school under the new “single-choice early action” provisions at Yale, Stanford and Harvard, colleges needlessly force students to limit their options.

It’s time to end early admissions. Period.

Without early admissions, colleges would eliminate a large part of the admissions “game,” making the rules crystal-clear for all the players.

Of course, no one wants to be the first to take that step, as it would put them at a critical disadvantage in the admissions pool. But two, three or four schools could take that leap together, making college admissions more equal and less stressful for high school seniors.

College admissions officers spend plenty of time trying to sell their schools with fancy brochures and well-polished presentations that set the right tone for their institution. But for all that slick talk, student-friendly admissions policies would go a lot further in showing students what the university really values.

Nick Timiraos is a senior in the College and a former editor in chief of THE HOYA. He can be reached at timiraosthehoya.com. Days on the Hilltop appears every Friday.

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