Yale announced its move to the Early Action plan last month. The change has met with general approval, and a commensurate announcement by Stanford University suggests a growing tendency among top schools toward the newer, more flexible admissions policy.
Everyone has heard already how early action will improve on the previous model. The new format alleviates the difficult logistics that face early-decision candidates dependent on financial aid, and every student, regardless of his need, can apply to Yale without committing himself. Also, next year, Yale will afford high school students the unlimited peace of mind derived from their freedom to “back out,” unless, of course, they actually wanted to come here.
This oft-cited justification for the transition to early action involves several issues. To reform on the basis of financial aid planning is fully understandable. But the foggy concerns over student stress and the “normal” senior year pose more of a problem. The old early decision served two purposes. First, it was a means for students to complete the admissions process quickly, thereby mitigating stress. Second, it permitted students to signal their dedication to Yale by promising to attend if accepted. The nonbinding agreement completely destroys any way for students to communicate their singular commitment to the university.
When Yale rescinds an individual’s privilege to make— and keep—a promise, it damages the university and the student. As an institution, Yale places less trust in its applicants: while the university doesn’t distrust the applicant, it suppresses the establishment of trust in the first place by disallowing students to make a sound commitment. Do we feel high school students are unable to make a decision? That they cannot be relied upon to be certain in the decision they make? The policy change sends a negative message to high school students because it implies that Yale expects less of them. It deprives candidates of a small measure of pride taken from committing to a decision. Essentially, a nonbinding agreement requires less responsibility from a student, and is less serious as a result.
President Levin feels that a binding early decision adds undue stress to the college admissions process by accelerating it by a few months. The new plan does not extend the actual application deadline, and because early action is exclusive—a student can only apply early to Yale—a decision still must be made by November in some form or another. The actual content of the admissions package— college essays, forms, and recommendations—constitute a major stressful aspect of applying, and students will still scramble to finish all of that work by the same date as in years previous. President Levin has urged the end of all early admissions programs, but a shorter application cycle reduces the time a high school senior dedicates to college concerns, leaving her free to concentrate on the senior year. Early decision normalizes the senior year by minimizing the duration of the admissions process on both ends. Granted, students experience a heightened stress level, but more briefly. Whether a student prefers that the process be drawn out and moderate or quick and intense seems largely a matter of taste, and the early-regular dichotomy addressed both cases. President Levin’s long-term plan favors the one group, but not the other.
To be sure, many capable men and women will want to take more time before they choose Yale or go elsewhere, but the policy reform imbalances the process in their favor. Careful analysis and forethought are commendable attributes in any scholar, leader or individual. Decisiveness and clarity of vision are also admirable. Neither set of qualities is superior. When a student arrives at Yale, further “life” decisions will hover before him, and for the university to brush the importance of this skill aside from the outset seems foolhardy. These decision are not made lightly, and to argue for early decision is by no means to support thoughtlessness. Early decision—binding early decision— has its place.
The long-standing concern over admissions strategizing in high school remains unaddressed by the new policy. By freeing students from any bond of commitment, Yale will only fuel the perception of mandatory early application among high school students. No student need care about where he applies—after all, he can always bow out—only that he apply quickly. Frankly, the policy comes across as antithetical to the goals that President Levin expressed to the university community last year.
One of the problems cited with the previous system was that schools were admitting too many students early, thus making it hard for someone to get in if they do not apply somewhere be November. At Harvard, half of the admits come early: but Harvard has early action. Maybe Yale should just restrain admissions officers and keep them from admitting too many students under the early program. Admissions officers expect higher application rates next year, but how does this improve the situation? Addressing the rising rates by limiting early admits is counterintuitive, because an early admissions cap increases the bias against dedicated early applicants. Maybe it would be better if Yale kept early decision, but also had an early action program, like Rice does. While this seems circular by reestablishing the old Yale admissions policy in a more complex format, at least it allows committed students to send that message to the University.
The new early action policy brings positive and negative changes, and deserves recognition for the improvement to financial aid especially. In the context of President Levin’s long-term plan, the reform is questionable, and the improvements it brings to the “early decision” frenzy need to be demonstrated, which is unlikely to happen. The space for committed students narrows with this restructuring, and that is unfortunate.
Adam Jenkins is a freshman in Morse College.