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The End of Early Decision?

The Justice Department is asking for information from a select group of schools regarding their Early Decision programs. What’s going on?

As we have noted, ED has grown in importance over the past few years as schools use the route to both improve their yield numbers and, also, to circumvent the bidding wars for financial aid that pits schools against each other in the hunt for top students from the regular pool. ED has been criticized as the province of wealthier, better advised students — to the detriment of low-income applicants.

Under the general terms of ED, applicants can only apply to one school, and they must commit to attending that school, if accepted. But how to ensure that students are only sending in an ED application to a single school?

Colleges could trust their applicants (as if!), or, better still, they can compare names on ED lists to make sure that nobody is trying the game the system. This sharing of data is undoubtedly the behavior that is of concern to the Justice Department, which could well deem the activity a restraint of trade.

The Ivies have had their hands slapped for collusive behavior in the past — though it seems that they do not share the identities of ED applicants at present, and the College is not an object of the present inquiry. In 1991, all eight schools agreed to cease coordinating financial aid offers to applicants. The Overlap Group had been establishing Ivy-wide guidelines for aid, which, in a business context, would have been considered to be price-fixing. The Justice Department’s consent order set off an era that continues to this day, wherein students can pit schools against each other in negotiating the best deal.

In September, 2006, Harvard and then Princeton ended ED admissions. The hope expressed at the time was that other schools would follow suit. None did. The usual justifications cited above were put forward, but suspicious minds (moi?) believe that both schools felt that ending ED gave them access to a pool of high-quality candidates that might have applied ED at other schools.

However the opposite occurred — ED applications rose at other top colleges — and both Harvard and Princeton reinstated an ED lookalike: Restrictive Early Action (“If you apply to Harvard under our Early Action program, you may also apply at the same time to any public college/university or to foreign universities but you are restricted from applying to other private universities’ Early Action and Early Decision programs.”). Clever, n’est-ce pas? Harvard loses nobody to other private American universities, the school’s chief competitors, under these terms.

If the Justice Department forbids the sub rosa sharing of applicants’ names, do alternative enforcement mechanisms exist? Before we go there, there is ample precedent for the sharing of certain information between normally independent competitors. For example, the Supreme Court ruled many decades ago that insurance companies could exchange claims information — an action deemed in the public interest as it allowed companies to price their products more keenly, given that they had better information on the global risk profiles of their customers.

Perhaps the schools could ask candidates to agree to the release of applicant lists to the public, just names and zip codes for example, and in that way schools could police their rolls using public data?

Or maybe Harvard and Princeton will get their wish. No more ED at all. Which would throw the entire application process wide open.

Addendum: In fact, not all students accepted under the College’s ED program actually come to Hanover. According to the Dartmouth FactBook, only 96%-97% do:

Early Decision Yield.jpg

Dean of Admissions Lee Coffin responded promptly and graciously to my request for an explanation of these figures:

Good morning, Joe.

“ED yield” averages around 97-98%. The data reported in the Fact Book doesn’t reflect the ED acceptances who take a gap year; the Fact Book data suggests they “didn’t yield” (and it reports a slightly lower ED yield than is true), but those 8-12 students simply postponed enrollment.

Other reasons for an ED decline would be financial aid (a few every year are released on that grounds) or shifts in athletic recruitment. For example, the departure of our soccer coach pried lose one ED acceptance this year. We also lost a football recruit.

For 2022, the current ED yield is 98.8% (558 out of 565), but we have not processed gap year requests yet. (That happens in May.)

One other thing: Dartmouth does not share a list of ED applicants or acceptances with other colleges (nor do the other Ivies, I believe).


Addendum: The WSJ is reporting that the following schools are among those that have received letters from the Department of Justice: Wesleyan, Middlebury, Pomona, Amherst, Wellesley, Williams, and Grinnell.


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