Early Decision and the Politics of Class

By Rachel Toor

The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Chronicle Review, January 26, 2001

“I know I’m going to apply early; I just don’t know where.” That statement makes admissions folks cringe.

Early-decision programs—where a student selects a first-choice college and agrees, if admitted, to matriculate— were designed for students truly able to make a college decision early: those who had found a perfect match and wanted to look no further. It was a way for the applicant to say to the college, “I want you,” and for the college to admit kids who would make die-hard alumni. Early-decision programs were not originally meant to be used as an admissions strategy, people in the business of reading applications say, but instead were a compassionate way to ease anxiety and allow students to enjoy (think of it!) their senior year in high school, knowing that they had a place in a class they were enthusiastic about joining. That’s a great sentiment, but I’m not sure how much truth there is to it these days. We’ve just finished yet another early-decision cycle. I’d love to see people begin to reconsider this program.

While working in the admissions office at Duke University, I dubbed a group of applicants “D.F.D.’s.” That was my own little acronym for the kids who were Dying For Duke. I met them everywhere I went. They would come to evening programs wearing old Duke hats. They’d show up when I visited their high schools, knowing more about the university that employed me than I did myself. They visited the campus and never wanted to leave.

“I’ve wanted to go to Duke since I was a little kid,” he’d tell me. “She’s had her heart set for years,” her parents would say. Sometimes it was because a relative or some other revered older person had gone to the university. Other times, it just seemed random: a basketball game on television, the mascot, the way the name looked on a sweatshirt.

The notion that you can find the perfect fit, well before you are even ready to attend college, troubles me. What troubles me more is the scant amount of real information on which high-school students make these kinds of assessments—a sunny day while visiting, a perky tour guide, good food on campus—subjective, random impressions that get cast in stone.

Like other “college reps,” I spent the fall traveling to high schools. I met “Seth” and “Clark” at my very first school visit, to a good private school in Boston. Before I talked to them, however, their college counselors wanted to speak with me. They told me that both boys had their hearts set on Duke. But both were also “legacies” at Ivy League colleges and, given their transcripts and test scores, the counselors wanted them to apply early where their parents had gone, and where they might have the better chance of getting in.

Seth and Clark were certainly Dying For Duke. They’d visited our campus multiple times, followed the sports teams. They knew about study-abroad programs and had done research on the research done by some of our professors. They were both, they said, going to apply early. Because Duke was where they wanted to go.

Early decision is, I think, the best option for D.F.D.’s, or D.F.Y.’s, or D.F.H.’s. It’s their best shot. At Duke, we took roughly a third of the class early. That meant the admit rate was something like 40 percent, as compared with the 20-percent rate for regular decision. Some colleges like to say that early applicants are a stronger, more self-selected pool. That was not my experience. Students who apply early do so for two reasons: Because the institution really is their first choice and because they know that it’s easier to get in.

Seth and Clark did apply early. Neither was a strong candidate, but each had something going for him (the development office, for example, was interested in both). And they were appealing kids. So we took them. These boys would bleed Duke blue, I thought, so they’d make good, happy Duke students. And generous alumni, the development office reminded us. Clark transferred to the Ivy League college where he was a legacy after his first year. Seth has remained, but he recently told me he is disappointed. It’s not what I expected, he said.

I wondered about that and began to question some of the other D.F.D. kids whose applications I’d read. A surprisingly large number of them were thinking about transferring. Or were staying, but were unhappy. Few of my D.F.D. applicants retained their initial enthusiasm. It wasn’t that they didn’t like Duke, but that the reality didn’t match the fantasy — and they had had such high expectations.

Understand that admissions is a cyclical process: In the fall, admissions officers hit the road, visiting school after school. By the end of travel season, most admissions folks are pretty darn tired. So they eagerly look forward to the next step in the cycle: reading. The first applications you read are from the early-decision kids. Because it’s early, you can still be excited. Plus, the early-decision pool is smaller than the regular-decision pool, and you can linger languidly over an application, searching for the facet that will make the applicant sparkle. (Most admissions officers read to say yes, not no.)

When I think about the students I know best today, most of them are kids who applied early, whose applications I read extremely closely, and whom I had gotten to know well, sometimes long before I’d met them in person. Of course, I had met many of them, since early-decision kids tend to come to campus, introduce themselves at evening programs, send you e-mail messages both before and after they get their decision. If you remember meeting and liking a kid, you are, in my experience, a stronger advocate for him or her.

But, as much as I love “my kids,” I am forced to admit that many of them were not the strongest applicants; it was just that I had the most personal connection to them. The number of applications I read during regular decision was far higher. While I, like my colleagues, tried to give all applications a fair read, after a couple of months of poring over them daily, I may not have been fully attentive at 11 at night, after 15 hours of reading.

Similarly, in the selection-committee meetings we held, it was easy to spend time discussing the early applicants. During the regular season, each admissions officer’s “slate” of candidates could last a whole day and into the evening. Blood-sugar levels and human fatigue, I am certain, played a part in some decisions.

The early-decision program does, however, benefit colleges. I remember thinking, as I read one application, “Hooray for early decision!” I knew that the student would be coming to Duke and not turning us down for, say, Harvard. I’m guessing there are maybe three or four thousand kids in the country whom the same colleges all want. Those kids have lots of choices, and not just among brand names, but among scholarship offers from less “prestigious” institutions as well. Early decision takes away the ability to compare offers. Many of the top kids apply to places like Harvard and Brown, whose early-action programs admit them, without binding them to attend. Not many—at least not those with knowledgeable high-school counselors—apply early.

Indeed, the whole process is one that privileges the already privileged. High-school students who have college counselors or parents who are able to push them to start thinking about college in the junior year, who can afford to spend the summer visiting campuses, and who can have their applications ready to go by the fall are going to have a big leg up in this business. As will students who know the difference between early decision and early action. And those students tend to come from private schools or wealthy suburban districts.

Now that I am out of the admissions business, I’m frequently asked for advice. Any student who would be asking me for free advice is one who probably doesn’t need it. These kids are generally the children of my friends, who are generally well educated, well read, and, for the most part, well heeled. That disturbs me. I should be talking to kids who don’t have access to people like me. To applicants whose parents don’t know much about “elite” schools, to angst-ridden intellectual teenagers who feel at odds with their high-school culture, who may be smarter or more intellectual than their high-school teachers.

Sure, rural valedictorians and first-generation college kids are always a big hit around admissions tables. Everyone likes an “overcomer.” In that respect, admission to a selective college can be a class leveler, giving access to the trappings of money, power, and prestige that will make a big difference in a person’s life. In most ways, though, admissions is a perpetuator of class privilege. The early-decision program works together with other factors that reinforce class lines. The people whose parents can pay for elite private high schools, shell out additional thousands for “independent college counselors,” visit campuses and meet with the “right people,” and, yes, who know that applying early can give them a boost — they are clearly at an advantage. It’s the regular folks — maybe they have parents who grew up in a recession and feel that a fancy degree will mean financial security—who are lost when it comes to playing the game.

The application process is being pushed earlier and earlier in a student’s high-school career—witness the fact that college fairs are now inviting middle-school children to attend. Colleges and universities are served well by the early-decision process, and I can’t see them giving up the practice. And youngsters, while watching college basketball games or hearing the valedictory speeches given by those much older than they, will still decide that they are Dying For Some School.

The Rev. Tony Jarvis, the headmaster of Roxbury Latin School, in Massachusetts, has been known to say to parents, “I don’t know who is luckier in life, the people who get what they want or the ones who don’t.” It’s a rare sentiment for the head of a college-preparatory school. But it is a good reminder.