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Universities Debate Whether Early Admission Should Be Continued

December 15, 2006 at 6:35 PM EST
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JEFFREY BROWN: It used to be a relatively straightforward rite of spring, but over the last decade, the process of getting accepted to college has become more complicated. And for a growing number of students, including these at George Mason High in Northern Virginia, it’s moved way up in the calendar.

For tens of thousands of high school seniors around the country, this was the week to learn whether they would gain acceptance to college under so-called “early admissions” programs.

MARGARET LIPMAN, George Mason High School: I’m a little anxious, but I’m happy that I’ll know for sure, yes or no, very soon.

JEFFREY BROWN: For many, this year has been about more than just getting good grades.

JASON BENN, George Mason High School: It really helps to have a couple easy activities, like National Honor Society. Once you’re in, the application itself is like one day’s work. Then once you’re in, it’s a 10-minute meeting every week, and it looks great on your application. So why not be part of that?

ANNA DUNING, George Mason High School: Applications have become so lengthy, and there are so many activities to fill out, it’s a lot — it takes a lot of work, and especially senior year when I already have a lot of work.

JEFFREY BROWN: Early admissions programs take many forms. And some, called “early decision,” colleges require a student, once accepted, to make a binding commitment to the school. Other programs, often called “early action,” are non-binding and the student can still look at other schools.

But even as they’ve grown more popular with some students and colleges, early admissions programs have also gained detractors. One area of contention: whether they disadvantage lower-income students who need to shop around for the best financial aid package.

This fall, two of the nation’s elite universities — Harvard and Princeton — caused a major stir in the academic world by announcing an end to early admissions beginning next year. The question now is whether other colleges will follow their lead.

Pressure on high school students

JEFFREY BROWN: And for more, we turn to two who know this world well. Nina Marks has more than 30 years' experience as teacher, guidance counselor and administrator. She now heads her own firm, Marks Counseling Associates, and is president of Collegiate Directions, a not-for-profit organization that provides counseling for lower-income students in the Maryland public schools.

Christopher Avery is co-author of the book "The Early Admissions Game." He's a professor of public policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

Welcome to both of you.

NINA MARKS, Collegiate Directions: Thanks, Jeff.

JEFFREY BROWN: Nina Marks, starting with you, when Harvard's interim president, Derek Bok, announced that Harvard would stop this early admission, he said, "The process of getting into college has become too complex." Give us a sense of what's happened.

NINA MARKS: Well, I think what's happened is that there are many more kids trying to get into good colleges. And we think that this is true, this is a problem only at very selective institutions, but I think the broader problem is that teenagers today feel -- and I have a great deal of sympathy for them -- that everything that they do is sort of on the record, and for real, in a way that it wasn't even a few years ago.

So there is a lot more of a perceived need to get any edge you can, to find, you know, the hook, the advantage that might work for you. And I think for, at this moment, it's a problem that hits, not just kids, but their families. And it really affects both schools and colleges, as well, the adults involved behind those kids.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Christopher Avery, this has made the experience of high school, as well as the application process, more pressure-packed, more frenzied. As a parent, I guess I know I have seen that. What do you see as a scholar?

CHRIS AVERY, Author, "The Early Admissions Game": Well, absolutely. And today is a big day. Actually, this whole week is a big week, as you mentioned. December 15th, Harvard is announcing its decisions at 5:00 p.m. by e-mail.

And, you know, we were talking before -- And Nina says that lots of her students are sitting at home waiting for that. This is the culmination of really years of hard work by the students, and so much stress.

When I applied to college 20 years ago, the Ivy League schools were taking one out of four. Today, they're taking one out of 10. And so that means there's that much more you need to do to stand out.

And so you have to plan way earlier. And we hear stories, eighth- and ninth-graders worrying about whether or not they're on the right track. Are they going to take enough A.P. courses? Are they going to have enough extracurriculars, getting more and more homework?

It's a very stressful -- it was always a stressful process, and it's that much more stressful today. So, in terms of early applications, the students are looking for every edge they can get.

Discontinuing early decision

JEFFREY BROWN: And you said, Nina Marks, even though we mentioned Harvard here, you said this is widespread throughout the system. This isn't just the most selective schools anymore.

NINA MARKS: No, I don't think so. I think it is very widespread. And I think it has to do with the fact that kids today are extraordinarily knowledgeable about what's going on in the world around them. They have access to information that I certainly didn't in, you know, the middle ages of the '60s when I applied to college, and even 5 or 10 years ago I think kids didn't know as much.

The more you know, if you know that the gateway is very narrow, the more quite rightly, if you're smart and if you're ambitious, you worry. And in addition, I think there are new stresses beyond the college numbers that relate to the new SAT, which applies, of course, to all kids applying to all colleges. So kids who felt some safety nets even a few years ago were in place for them don't feel them any more.

JEFFREY BROWN: So this debate over early admissions process, give us some flavor of the pros and cons, how colleges are seeing it now.

CHRIS AVERY: Well, I think the important thing to say, and what drew my interest to this subject originally, was that early applications has turned what was a straightforward process into a strategic game, where the students are having to choose where to apply early, knowing that it's going to be an advantage to their chances.

JEFFREY BROWN: It's an advantage...

CHRIS AVERY: We report in our book, our research, we found that applying early is going to help your chances wherever you apply, whatever the system, and it's really the equivalent of increasing your SAT score by about a hundred points.

JEFFREY BROWN: Because the early applicants have a higher percentage to get in?

CHRIS AVERY: Early applicants have a higher percentage to get in. There's a variety of reasons. The colleges are really getting a variety of advantages from accepting the early applicants, and so they're giving them that advantage in their decisions.

In turn, early applicants are figuring out that this is their chance to get ahead. You hate to use game language, but that's the only way you can do it. It's like the students have a single trump card, and they have to figure out how to play it wisely.

And what really struck me was the realization that you might have a very clear first-choice college, and it might not be the right thing to do to apply early there if you're not a great candidate.

So it's not just figuring out, where do you want to go to college? You also have to figure out, well, what are my chances? And is that really the best use of my trump card, to apply early?

Disadvantaging applicants

JEFFREY BROWN: And what about the disadvantaged? Who's disadvantaged by the early admission? As we said in our set-up, it looks like the people who are going to need financial aid packages have a harder time making decisions.

CHRIS AVERY: I think very broadly -- Richard Levin, president of Yale, when he criticized the system a few years ago, said this is working great for the colleges and the people who are the losers are the students. So I think overall the students are losers.

They're being forced to make these decisions. They're being forced to be strategic way before anybody should have to act like that. The current system does benefit people in a particular situation. They have a very clear first-choice college, and their family can afford financial aid, then they can apply early, early action or early decision.

Otherwise, if your family can't afford -- if you're going to rely on financial aid, then people say, "You have to apply early action and wait until the spring and try to get as many college acceptances as possible to prepare the financial aid packages." Already, you go into the system thinking, "I can't apply early to an early decision school," and so you're having to narrow your vision from the beginning.

So I think that's a big disadvantage for a lot of students. There's very few people, I think, who can go in and say, "I'm going to go wherever I want to go, regardless of the price."

Lower-income students

JEFFREY BROWN: Nina Marks, you work with low-income students. Do you see that experience? I guess another difference must be -- and, again, I know from experience how much the school itself helps. My kids were in a public school, but there's a pretty good support system. I know other kids are in different schools where there isn't all that support to help them make all this happen.

NINA MARKS: A lot of the same strategies about how you make good educational choices apply to low-income kids. That's not the real crux of the problem.

The problem is, as you said, in many schools, kids who don't have access to an adult who understands them, who gets them to think about their strengths, their needs, their opportunities, and in a timely manner to structure curriculum, testing, special opportunities, so that they can showcase some of those interests and strengths. That's the issue.

CHRIS AVERY: And I think that that highlights exactly what the problem with early applications actually is, that education is supposed to be the gateway to opportunity for everybody, and now we've got a system where you have to be sophisticated in order to traverse the system and get into college.

The people who have all the advantages are the ones who have folks like Nina as their counselors in high school, and it's now other students, that she's serving through the nonprofit, who actually need the help the most.

NINA MARKS: To be fair to the public school counselors whom you've just referenced, the caseload is so different. You know, the typical public school counselor works with 300 to 500 students.

At the National Cathedral School, even when I ran that college office by myself -- and in later years, I had help -- the biggest of our size was, you know, 75 or 80 young women, and I had a lot of help from faculty who were sort of networked and understood what we needed to accomplish together.

So adults who help kids need allies. And once we get into college, typically, kids still need guidance and advice and that feeling that there is a safe place they can go if they have questions, people who understand how to help them make choices about curriculum. It doesn't magically end.

JEFFREY BROWN: Never ends.

NINA MARKS: Never ends.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Thanks for helping us very much. Nina Marks, Christopher Avery, thanks.

NINA MARKS: Thank you.