Amherst Magazine

College Row
High school students tour the campus.High school students and parents on a campus tour. President Anthony W. Marx has suggested that colleges collectively limit the use of early decision, as Amherst does, to contain some of the current frenzy.

Early returns

More than ever, college admission is a competitive sport, one in which students frequently make use of early admission, a system that allows them to apply to college at the start of their senior year.

Critics have long charged that early admission unfairly benefits affluent students who apply early to increase their chances of acceptance. A number of schools, including some of Amherst’s peers, have admitted more than 50 percent of each class early, giving early applicants a leg up and encouraging students to use early admission as a strategy.

Detractors say that early plans put pressure on teens to prematurely settle on a college and enable early admits to slack off during their final year of high school. Also, the system can be awfully confusing: Some schools, including Amherst, obligate early applicants to enroll if accepted; other plans are nonbinding. Among the nonbinding plans, some allow students to apply early to multiple schools; others do not. There are even colleges that offer both binding and nonbinding plans.

In fact, Harvard has deemed the system so problematic that in September it announced it would get rid of early admission altogether. Princeton and the University of Virginia quickly followed suit.

Amherst did not. “We value those students we accept early,” says President Anthony W. Marx, “and the ability this gives us to sculpt our class and get really great students, but we also see reasons for concern among our peers. Perhaps it is time to see if other colleges will join in a conversation about how we can better design admissions, including in the use and scale of early decision, in order to contain some of the current frenzy.”

Amherst admits no more than 30 percent of its class early. For the Class of ’10, the number was 28 percent. (Williams admitted early 41 percent of the Class of ’10.) Tom Parker, dean of admission at Amherst, says the 30-percent cap ensures enough space for qualified low-income students, who, as a rule, come from high schools with less sophisticated college counseling programs and as a result are more likely to apply under the regular deadline. By filling the majority of spots in the spring, Amherst’s self-imposed limit also minimizes the pressure on students in general to make a premature choice.

Parker believes that when used properly, early admission neither penalizes the less affluent nor contributes to the general anxiety. “What does accomplish these things,” he wrote this fall in his annual letter to high school guidance counselors, “is the abuse of early programs, and by abuse I mean accepting half or more of a class early and implicitly or explicitly promulgating the notion that applying early is a distinct advantage in the admission process.”

Some colleges use early admission to boost their national ranking for selectivity. It works like this: Under the regular deadline, a college must offer admission to more students than it has spots to fill, knowing that not every accepted student will decide to enroll. But with binding early decision, a college need only admit as many students as it has space.

At Amherst the overall admission rate was 19 percent for the Class of ’10. While this makes it the most selective of the liberal arts colleges, if Amherst were to accept half the class early, Parker says, the college could drive down the rate to as low as 11 percent.
Three years ago, Marx suggested in newspaper interviews that colleges either collectively ban early decision or limit its use, as Amherst does. At some of our peer institutions, he told the Boston Globe in 2003, “it has grown beyond all reasonable grounds, not for good educational reasons but because it’s administratively convenient and allows colleges to look more competitive.”

Harvard and Princeton are among the numerous colleges that have taken close to half of their students early. The overall admission rate for the Class of ’10 at Harvard was 9 percent; at Princeton it was 10 percent. “We’ve never played that game,” Parker says. “It’s a stupid way to compete—really demeaning.”

For now, the current policy will remain in place at Amherst. In December, the college admitted 135 of 349 early applicants to the Class of ’11. It rejected 38. The college will decide in the spring whether to admit some of the remaining 176.

In the long term, the college will join in discussions and will watch the landscape to see whether there’s a widespread shift away from early admission.

Marx and Parker hope that the Harvard decision will lead everyone to look beyond the admission rate. “Let’s all stop talking about how many students we turn down,” Parker wrote in the letter to high school counselors, “and start talking about whom we admit and why we admit them and how such decisions are part of a larger and more inspiring educational vision.”

Next: Lost and found »

Photo: Samuel Masinter '04