Early Admission: Just The Facts, Please

By Andrew Blumenfeld ’13

In 2006, when the University announced that it would be abandoning its early admission program beginning in 2008, President Tilghman explained that the decision was made because “…it is the right thing to do.”  Yet after four classes have applied under the single-admission program since, Princeton announced this year that it would reinstate a modified early admission option. President Tilghman explained, “we hoped other colleges and universities would [also eliminate early programs], and they haven’t,” yet she maintained how “very pleased” the University has been with how the single admissions program “has worked.” By this testimony, this program of single-admission was created in the name of what was “right,” was at least successful enough to please the Administration for a handful of years, but was done away with because other universities did not follow suit. Many articles have expounded the theories that may or may not support an early admissions program at Princeton, but the series of events that have unfolded with regards to Princeton’s admissions policies are simply not consistent enough to be discussed exclusively in broad, theoretical terms.  There is a great deal of nuance to the realities underlying the University’s decisions that account for the apparent incongruence in the rhetoric, the theory, and the policy.  By taking a closer look at the data surrounding Princeton’s changing admissions policies, we might hope to get a better understanding of the significance of Princeton’s decision to revive a version of an early admissions program.

It is important to first take a look at what this change in University policy is actually doing when it says it is “reinstating an early admission program”—and what the University intended to end when it stopped early admission in 2008.  There are a variety of early admissions programs at colleges and universities throughout the country. The primary distinction is made between Early Decision and Early Action.  The former usually refers to a program that permits an applicant to apply by an early deadline exclusively at one particular institution, with the agreement that the student will enroll if accepted.  The latter often means the student is free to apply by an early deadline- and often can do so at multiple schools with similar policies- and will learn of their outcome (i.e., accepted, rejected, waitlisted, deferred to the regular applicant pool, etc.) by an earlier date.  A single-choice Early Decision program, like the one Princeton had until 2008, bolsters the statistics of the University, as an entire group of admitted students matriculates at a rate of 100% or close to it—a number (the “yield”) that factors into the famous rankings of colleges and universities. However, the University identified concerns that have often been lodged against this type of program when it cited “the right thing to do” as a motivation behind ending single-admission program in lieu of a single-choice Early Action program.

Critics of early admissions programs contend that they advantage white students and those from wealthier backgrounds to the detriment of lower-income students and those of racial minorities.  First, it is said, the latter group is less likely to have adequate information to put together an application by the earlier deadline—thus denying them an opportunity to be considered in a pool that often enjoys a higher admit rate.  Second, and perhaps more significantly, decisions regarding financial aid packages- a concern that weighs more heavily in poorer communities- are not available in their totality to those applying early prohibiting students from simultaneously applying to restrictive early programs and comparing financial aid awards among multiple schools.

If these concerns are as legitimate in practice as they seem in theory, we might expect to see a jump in racial minority and lower-income applicants after an early program is abolished.  Further, if this were the case, we might also expect the University to maintain this altruistic policy regardless of pragmatic concerns (such as the practices of other institutions), as the policy was introduced and acknowledged as one that flew in the face of the practical needs of the University (such as keeping the yield high).  So when this year President Tilghman said, “We have carefully reviewed our single admissions program every year, and we have been very pleased with how it has worked,” in the same press release that abolishes that very program, her statement further muddled our understanding of what a single admissions program “working” looks like.

Unfortunately, even given all of the questions this raises, the University does not report, and has not specifically commented on, the type of data that would turn this theoretical question into an empirical one.  Luckily, there is some information available as to the makeup of applicant pools over the years, and these might provide a glimpse into the effects of the policy changes.  The first group of students to apply under the single admissions program (i.e., without the option of applying early) was the Class of 2012.  All racial minorities have been combined in the University’s public data, and they report that this group made up 34.5% of the pool, with 56% of the total body of admitted students for that class receiving some form of financial aid.  This is a slight increase from the preceding class (the last class to apply with an Early Decision option), which awarded 54% of the admitted students financial aid, and saw 33.9% of applicants qualify as racial minorities.  These differences are so slight it is difficult to credit the modest increases in both categories to the change in admission policy.  While data on the racial and financial make-up of the early applicant pools as compared to the regular applicant pools would be more insightful, the University does not report this information.

Though it is difficult to draw conclusions based on the small amount of reported data and the minor changes from immediately before to immediately after the change in policy, the trends over multiple years are worth considering.  The percentage of admitted students receiving financial aid (in years after the implementation of the no-loan policy in 2001) had remained relatively constant at about 54% before the elimination of Early Decision.  While the increase for the first post-Early Decision class was modest, the following few years saw consistent increases culminating in the Class of 2014, of which 63% of students received aid (reported as of March 2011).  A significant externality is the turbulent economy in the past few years; these changes might as easily reflect the changing times as they do the change in policy.

Another trend that might not be as susceptible to macroeconomic changes is the increase in racial minority applicants.  Again, the immediate changes appear miniscule, but the years that follow have seen consistent gains in the total amount of racial minority applicants with the most recent pool being made up of nearly 38% minority students.  This comes after over a decade of racial minorities applying as a steady 28% of the applicant pool. The largest year-to-year changes, however, seem to take place before the change in early admission policy in 2008.  The Admissions Office is proud of a range of changes they have made to appeal to a wider spectrum of the high school population (including, for example, the reduction of required SATII tests due to their rising cost), and any of those changes might have caused the changes in the application pool.

While these statistics may not lead to a definitive evaluation of the University’s decisions to end- and then reinstate- an early admissions option, they do lead us to frustration.  The University has made any number of claims about their decisions regarding this policy- from those based in morality, to those based in pragmatism- and any number of critics and champions have rushed to commentate.  And despite all of this, the level of accountability to the many questions raised by these changes remains disappointingly low.  Due to a lack of public data, it is difficult to know exactly what President Tilghman means when she says the single-admissions policy “has worked.” However, if this does mean the Admissions Office believes recent changes in the applicant pool are tied to the policy changes, it is difficult for the University to justify its abandonment of this policy.  One possible explanation is that administrative data suggests early applicants are less affected by awareness of an early program than they are by the issue of financial aid, and a non-binding Early Action program would, therefore, be tenable to these marginalized groups. However, without any data or reasonable measure of accountability, such questions remain unanswerable.

To introduce a policy change in moral terms, announce its success, and then abandon it on the basis of practicability is complicated, but not necessarily evidence of a logical breakdown.  It does, however, inevitably beg questions that address the specifics of that policy to an extent that seems unmet by the University.  In recent years the University has made obvious efforts to broaden the accessibility of Princeton to more racial and socioeconomic sectors of the country; for this it ought to be applauded, but nevertheless held to a level of scrutiny that demands adequate explanations for policy changes that may have repercussions on who makes up the applicant pool.

Andrew Blumenfeld is a sophomore from Los Angeles, CA. He can be reached at ablumenf@princeton.edu.

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