When Early College Admissions Go Extreme

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Students walk near Sather Gate on the University of California at Berkeley campus in Berkeley, California.


That's the sound many wannabe Crimsonites heard when Harvard announced on Sept. 12 that it would do away with its early admission program. Beginning in the fall of 2007, students who apply by Nov. 1 will no longer hear yea or nay by Dec. 15; all applicants will instead face the same deadline of Jan. 1, with acceptances (or rejections) fluttering into mailboxes sometime in the spring.

By slamming its gates to early comers, the nation's top university focused the nation's attention on a trend that has alarmed some educators: students applying for college earlier and earlier and earlier. But all signs say that schools—at least the majority of schools that are not super elite —won't be following Harvard's lead anytime soon. In fact, a stunning 68% of U.S. colleges allow students to begin applying before Sept. 1 of their senior year, according to an August report by the National Association of College Admissions Counselors (NACAC). And one in four will admit seniors even before the end of summer.

Call it extreme early admissions. Students argue that the practice allows them to enjoy their last year of high school without engaging in the increasingly histrionic rite of passage known as college admissions. There are other perks: schools like Alma College in Alma, Mich., give early admits dibs on dorm rooms and parking spaces. Colleges benefit the most by locking in the best and most gung-ho students—not to mention those who can afford to pay full fare.

That's exactly what worries a growing chorus of educators. Affluent, savvy students know that applying early means they may increase their chances of getting in. To these kids, it typically doesn't matter if committing early to one college means they can't compare financial aid packages from other schools.

The implications are sufficiently alarming that NACAC will vote at its national conference in early October to ban extreme early admissions at its over 2,000 member colleges.

Among students, the rush to apply to colleges before senior year is only building. NACAC says 58% of colleges offering early decision reported an increase in those applications in 2005, while 80% of those that offer nonbinding early action programs saw a jump.

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