Early Action has been a popular way for college-bound high school seniors to apply to some of their favorite schools. Early Action is tied to an early application deadline (usually by mid-November) deadline. It is not restrictive. Accepted students can wait until May 1st to deposit. Its low risk for the student, and often a win-win for the applicants and the admissions office.

Early Action is practiced quite often among many schools. Rutgers uses Early Action, as do Penn State, Temple, James Madison, the University of Maryland-College Park and Drexel, among many others. Smaller schools do, too. Seton Hall University does in New Jersey, my home state. It’s most advantageous for the largest schools as well as those that have academic programs that are extremely popular, but also quite competitive.

Why do these schools use it?

For one thing, it helps to fill the class faster.

This past November, for example, the University of Georgia sent out 8,000 acceptance notices for Early Action, out of a total of 15,000 applications. The State of Georgia has some extremely generous scholarships and the university has some large honors programs; it’s quite likely that many of those accepted will say yes quickly. Among students who were accepted to the University of Georgia in 2016, the last year data was available from the university, an amazing 44 percent decided to come!

The University of Maryland-College Park received approximately 25,000 applications by the Early Action deadline of November 1st, expecting 34,000 total for a class of about 4,100. From 2014 through 2016, thirty-one percent or more of their accepted students decided to come, also excellent for a flagship state university. 

For another, it gives the college more time to woo the prospective student, especially if s/he is thinking about more selective schools. This might be include sending a personalized e-zine or an invitation to an accepted students event. It might also be a scholarship, or an invitation to apply or interview for one. It is more rewarding for an admission office to extend the cycle to consider students that it has already accepted, versus collecting and reviewing applications into the spring.

For the student Early Action relieves anxiety for applicants who have these schools at or near the top of their lists. There’s no pressure to apply to more schools when you get an early notice from the ones you wanted, and there’s still time to consider the schools that you like. And if a school defers or says no, there’s still time to find others that are more likely to say yes.

But now the US Department of Justice is investigating the Statement of Good Principles and Practices adopted by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), a membership organization that includes college admissions counselors, school counselor and independent advisors, like myself.

No one knows how the investigation could turn up or how it could turn out to change admissions practices. However, as college bound juniors begin to make their college lists, it is possible that it could change the admissions processes at many schools.

I am neither an economist nor political scientist. But I would guess that Early Action could be perceived by conservative minds as an exercise of monopoly power by a relatively selective flagship state university. Early Action offers advantages to schools that are well known, and quite often public, like the University of Georgia or the University of Maryland. They have more time to recruit the students they want against private and lesser-known public schools that those applicants might also have under consideration. They don’t need to read as many applications later in the admissions cycle; they have already accepted most of the students they need by December 31st.

Imagine that you’re from Georgia and your heart is set on becoming a University of Georgia Bulldog. However, instead of having that acceptance by November, you have to wait until March. Other schools in Georgia, and probably elsewhere, have the opportunity to market to you, to get your application. Nervous that the University of Georgia will say no, you apply to other state schools in Georgia, and maybe some in other states such as Auburn, the University of Alabama and the University of South Carolina that have less selective admissions.

Was this better or fairer to the student?

  • Because s/he did not know if their first-choice school would say yes until the spring, s/he and their parents spent more time on college applications, and more money on application fees than expected. The University of Georgia charges $70 to apply and you also paid to send the SAT scores there. If that was all you spent you’d be smiling. But if you had to spend $350 to $700 to apply to more schools, as well as the extra charges to sent the scores, that smile turns upside down.
  • The level of anxiety might be higher, if all of those schools forced that student to wait until the spring.
  • When all of the acceptances come in later, the student has less time to choose a school. In California, for example, the University of California schools give accepted students only a month to choose the campus where they want to deposit. It’s not easy to find time to travel across the state when you have to choose between UCLA and Berkeley, let alone another campus that might appear attractive to you.
  • But maybe s/he will receive a scholarship offer from a school that was not at the top of their list at the state.

Was this better or fairer to the admissions office?

  • They would still need to have a deadline to review applications, and it might not necessarily be later at a school that receives the volumes that would be expected at a school as popular as Georgia or Maryland.
  • They would have more time to review those applications and have less pressure to get decisions out.  But they could all go out in a rush. Mistakes would be more likely.
  • They would have less time to turn those acceptances into deposits. That might not be so bad at a school that needs between 400 and 500 freshmen. But it’ll be all hands on deck, including student volunteers, when you need to draw a class of 4,000 or more. It’s quite likely that May 1st would not be early enough to fill a class under such pressures.

Forcing schools to operate in what conservatives might consider to be a “freer market” might sound like good political philosophy. But if it led schools to discontinue Early Action, it would not work well in practice or to the greater satisfaction of students and parents.

Want to learn more about college admissions practices? Contact me at stuart@educatedquest.com or call me at 609-406-0062.

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