President's Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
Is Early Decision a Good Decision?
February 27, 2002
There has been much discussion in the national press recently about “early decision,” the process by which high school seniors who have identified their first choice college can receive an admission decision in December in return for agreeing to attend that college if admitted. In this page I will report on discussions I have had with Dean of Admission Fred Hargadon about the pros and cons of early decision as we have experienced it at Princeton.
The two principal questions are whether early decision serves the best interests of students and whether it serves the best interests of schools. From the perspective of students, it offers a number of benefits. Those who are admitted early avoid the time and expense of submitting multiple applications, as well as the anxiety of waiting until April to know their college destination. Early decision also benefits students in the regular admission pool, as they do not have to compete for places with students admitted early. As Dean Hargadon told me, “The student I worry about is the one who is narrowly turned down by her first choice college in favor of a student with twelve other acceptances who has no intention of attending.”
One of the concerns raised about early decision is that it encourages students to make college choices before they are ready, and pushes decision-making back into the junior year of high school. Certainly students who are not ready to choose by the fall should wait until the regular admission process. But many students have begun to think about college well before their senior year in high school and are ready to make an informed choice in time to participate in early decision. In fact, our experience is that, perhaps because early decision candidates are required to make a commitment as part of the application process, they frequently have thought more carefully than other students about the choice they are making. It has also been argued that early decision disadvantages the “late bloomer,” and places greater pressure on students to do well early in their high school careers. It is the case that to be successful in early decision, a student has to have a record of academic achievement, but it is also true that early applicants are often deferred to the regular decision cycle to allow us to obtain more information about their progress in senior year.
Another concern is that some students are applying early not because they have made informed choices, but because they believe they will be disadvantaged if they apply in the regular process, either because many spaces in the entering class will already be filled during early decision or because the standards for early admission are lower than the standards applied later in the process.
At Princeton we carefully monitor both of these concerns. We do want to maintain a fair balance between early admission and regular admission, and we do our best to ensure that those students admitted under early decision are, in fact, the students who would have been admitted under regular decision if that were the only process.
An important concern that we take very seriously is that there are many students, particularly in less affluent communities, who are not aware that early decision is available, or whose schools are not equipped to support early decision applications. This is one important reason to make sure that we do not fill too much of the class during early decision, and to do our best to get information about our program to as many students as possible. We are strongly committed to seeking a diverse student body, and the evidence is that we have admitted some of the most diverse classes in our history since adopting early decision in 1995.
One other concern that has been expressed about early decision is that it eliminates the opportunity for students admitted early to compare financial aid offers and even to use an aid offer from one school to obtain a better offer from another. This is not an issue for Princeton, in part because our financial aid policies are the strongest in the country with respect to need-based aid (including no loan requirement) and in part because we do not engage in bargaining.
Finally, some have expressed concern that early decision accelerates the onset of “senioritis,” with students slacking off in high school as soon as they are admitted. One problem with this argument is that even for students applying in the regular process, senioritis can arrive with the mailing of the final application, just weeks after early decisions are announced, and the process of filling out multiple applications is not exactly conducive to senior year studies. We try to make it clear to our admitted students that we expect they will continue to perform well throughout their high school careers.
From an institutional perspective, early decision offers a number of benefits. Perhaps most importantly, as we try to build a class of excellent students who bring to campus a broad array of talents, backgrounds and interests, it allows us to go into the regular admission process (where we do not know for sure which students offered admission will choose to enroll) knowing the composition of a significant fraction of the class. Moreover, because of its November deadline, early decision allows us to distribute somewhat the enormous workload on the admission staff, allowing them to pay closer attention to each applicant in both the early and the regular process.
The ultimate test of any admission process for Princeton is whether it is fair and equitable to our applicants and whether it allows the University to enroll the strongest possible class, measured against all of the qualities that are important to us, including academic excellence, diversity of talents and interests, potential for leadership, strength of character, and commitment to the service of others. In our experience, a carefully administered early decision program meets this test. At the same time, through the faculty Committee on Undergraduate Admission and Financial Aid we will continually monitor our program to be sure it is, in fact, meeting our aspirations for it.