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Early-Admission Dominos Fall

Halts At Princeton, Harvard Help Swell Rivals' Applications


By Anjali Athavaley

Nov 14, 2007 (WALL STREET JOURNAL) -- The elimination of early admissions at Harvard University and Princeton University -- effective this year -- is helping to fuel a rise in applications at other elite schools that offer nonbinding "early action" programs. The trend will make it more difficult for top colleges to predict how many of the students they admit will actually enroll, admissions officials say.

Yale University so far has received 4,820 applications to its early-action program this year, up 36% from last year. The University of Chicago has received 4,349 applications, up 42% from last year. Georgetown University says it has received 5,925 applications, an increase of 30% from last year.

The University of Notre Dame received 4,247 early-action applications this year, up 12% from last year. Boston College says it is expecting about 7,000 early-action applicants this year, up 16% from last year. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is expecting that once applications have been counted, it will see a 10% increase from 3,493 early applications last year.

Students who apply under early-action programs typically send their materials by Nov. 1 and are notified in December. If accepted, they are under no obligation to attend. Admissions officials say the final tallies may be slightly different after all applications have been counted.

Last year, both Harvard and Princeton announced they would abandon their early-admission programs in an effort to increase access for disadvantaged students. Critics of such programs say that the process benefits students who attend well-funded high schools and can afford private guidance counselors.

So far, most top schools have left their programs in place, but the decisions by Harvard and Princeton -- Princeton's program was binding, but Harvard's was not -- have caused a shift in where students apply early. Many students who would have applied to those schools are now applying to rival schools to secure a spot elsewhere early.

To be sure, factors other than the Harvard and Princeton decisions have contributed to the increases in early applicants that schools are reporting. Individual students are applying to an increasing number of colleges, high school counselors and admissions deans say, and more students prefer to apply early.

Students generally feel they have nothing to lose by applying early to their second or third choices if those schools offer nonbinding admission, says Bari Meltzer Norman, director of Expert Admissions LLC, which offers private guidance-counseling services for students.

But that doesn't mean they will attend those schools if admitted. Unlike early-decision programs, which are binding, early- action programs allow students to wait until May to make a final decision. Therefore, they can apply to more schools under regular decision admission before choosing a college. "As the colleges are being more strategic in how they structure their admissions policies, students are being more strategic in where they apply," Ms. Meltzer Norman says.

As a result, some top schools that offer nonbinding early-action admission say their yield -- or the percentage of students accepted who decide to attend -- will be more difficult to predict this year. Yields are important to colleges because they are closely monitored by competing schools, potential donors and applicants as an indication of the college's appeal.

Georgetown, in Washington, is also likely to have received some applicants who would have applied early to the University of Virginia, another selective school that eliminated early admissions this year after Harvard and Princeton announced their decisions, says Charles Deacon, dean of admissions at Georgetown.

Last year, Georgetown's yield was 60% for its early-action applicants, but this year, he expects it to fall to 50%. There is "probably a greater chance we will be using the wait list more than before this year, because our yield rate will go down," Mr. Deacon says.

Harvard and Princeton also say their yields will likely be affected this year. Princeton in previous years has accepted about 48% of its class via early decision. This year, it is possible that students may pick other colleges that offer early admission. "We know our yield will go down slightly, and our admit rate will go up," says Princeton Dean of Admission Janet Lavin Rapelye. Not all schools that offer nonbinding early-action programs and compete with Harvard and Princeton for applicants saw large increases in applications. Stanford University's numbers were relatively stable. So far this year, the school has received 4,504 applications, compared with 4,574 for all of last year. Richard Shaw, dean of undergraduate admission and financial aid, expects the final tally to be close to last year's.

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