Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Waiting is the Hardest Part: The Story of Early Action

"You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need..."
- The Rolling Stones

I turn to the British Invasion for my musical inspiration this week as I talk about our decision to eliminate our early action application deadline.  As most of you know, most colleges have several application options available.  The most common are early action, which allows you to apply early and get a decision earlier but does not commit you to attend and early decision, which does carry with it an obligation to enroll if you are accepted under that plan.  These multiple application options have complicated an already difficult process and, in the opinion of many - especially on the high school side - have further advanced the notion that there is a game to be played by the savvy consumer.  The belief is that taking advantage of these early options implies a greater chance of acceptance and therefore students and parents are applying to more and more places earlier and earlier.

How much of that is true may be up for debate, but what seems to be very clear is that these early programs have become so popular that most schools are seeing a significant portion of their applicant pools come in through the early option.  At the University of San Diego, our early action applications increased over 52% since 2010.  That year we received just over 28% of our total applications through early action.  In 2012, the 5280 early applications represented over 32% of our total.  These students tended to be stronger academically, more female, more white, and less geographically diverse than our overall application pool. 

Having more students who are academically stronger apply to your school would seem to be good news for the admissions office.  So why in the world would we consider ending such a program?  Well, here's where those lyrics from the Rolling Stones come in.  Building our class each year is a complex and difficult exercise and requires us - and all selective schools - to make tradeoffs.  It would be far easier if we knew with certainty how many applications we were going to get, what the quality and characteristics of that pool was going to be, and who was most interested.  We could make our decisions and have a reasonable idea about who was actually going to enroll.

We can't always get what we want, however.  As a relatively small school (5200 undergraduates) without the capacity to grow the size of our freshman class very much, we are very cautious about how many students we admit. In addition to wanting more academically strong students, we also want to enroll students with more diverse backgrounds - ethnically, geographically, gender and religious, socioeconomically, etc.  Our application pool, like many other private schools in the west, has grown tremendously over the past few years - 57% in the last five years including a 20% increase last year alone.  With so many families facing economic challenges, the uncertainty surrounding our public universities, and more and more schools using the Common Application, students are applying to more places.  With all of these factors fueling the application growth, it is more and more difficult for us to decide who to admit and how many to admit in order to arrive at the "right" number and mix of students that we would like.

As a result, what we found was that we admitted the strongest students who applied early, but because of this uncertainty about how the overall applicant pool was going to look, we ended up defering to the regular pool increasingly large numbers of students.  This meant making them wait until March when we made the rest of our decisions.  In addition, because we didn't know how large or how strong the pool was going to be, it became increasingly difficult to offer merit scholarships to the early action students (without exploding our budget) and so even if we offered them acceptance in December, they had to wait until March to find out whether they qualified or not.  With or without a merit award, many of these early action admits and their families needed to wait for our financial aid award in March before they could make a decision on whether to attend. 

The impact of what I have described above was becoming a real challenge for our office.  Starting in November, the admissions staff began reviewing the early action applications.  We tried our best to get as many admit decisions out to students before the Christmas holiday, although that became increasingly difficult given the numbers.  By mid-January, our early decisions were all made and the staff could finally begin reading the thousands of regular decision applications.  During this time, however, we planned campus events for the early admits, had students and alumni make congratulatory calls, sent mailings, and did our best to "convert" these admits into enrolling students.  This took precious time away from the reading of our regular students.  And finally, in the end, we found that the percentage of early action students who ended up accepting our offer of admission was about the same as those who were admitted through the regular decision option.

This summer, during our staff retreat, we reviewed all of this information and everyone shared their frustration with the early process.  We talked about how it was increasingly difficult for us to review these files in a timely way.  We expressed concern for how long we made students wait who were deferred.  We looked at lots of data on who our early applicants were, who ultimately came, and what we were truly looking for among our enrolled students.  The result was that while we may not be able to get what we want, we found a way to get what we need.

What our students need is a relatively easy way to apply for admission, present their academic credentials and convey their "fit" with our campus and programs.  What we need is a process that allows the staff to thoroughly review every file, understanding how that student's strengths and qualities compares them to everyone else who has applied.  What we all need is a clear expectation about when to apply and when decisions will be made. What we need, and we now have, is a single deadline, December 15.

There already has been a fair amount of feedback from this decision.  Mostly positive, but more than a few raised eyebrows from colleagues on and off campus.  There was a posting to our admissions list serve which solicited some very nice comments (thanks Dennis Eller at Canterbury School).  A wonderful writer from the Chronicle of Higher Education, Beckie Supiano, wrote about our decision in her Blog, Headcount  ( But this wasn't about getting press or attention.  It was about an admissions office trying make choices - tradeoffs - in order to meet the enormous challenges we face each year in enrolling our class.  It was about trying to make things a bit easier for students, but it was also about trying to make things a little easier for us, too.  How will it turn out?  That remains to be seen, but I will certainly be posting about it as December gets closer.  In the end,  I hope we all at least get what we need.

P.S. - Today is the first day of classes here at USD.  Welcome to all our new freshman and transfer students.  The view from my window is much better with all our students back!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It's taken me awhile to find the time to reply to your letter and now this blog about your decision to eliminate early action. We are in the midst of getting all our students ready for everyone else's early action deadline! As a high school college counselor I applaud this effort to tap down the anxiety and make this important process a bit more sane.