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Students being forced into early decision Maybe it's peer pressure. Perhaps it's media hype. Or maybe it's simply a matter of preparedness. Whatever the cause, one thing is clear: More high school seniors are applying to college early, either through the binding early decision process or the non-binding early action program, than ever before. Admissions deans at many top colleges and universities say the growth in early applications stems from a shared belief among many high school seniors that applying early heightens their chances of getting into highly competitive schools. But many parents and high school guidance counselors criticize the early application policies, claiming that students now feel forced into applying early because they fear that they will be locked out of top schools by the time April comes around. Guidance counselors also argue that early decision can place middle- and lower-income students at an unfair disadvantage because many schools offer fewer financial aid packages during early decision, and students lose the opportunity to compare different financial aid offers. The early application process has continued to gain popularity, especially in the last few years. At Penn, for example, the number of early decision applicants has increased a whopping 40 percent in just three years, on top of other double digit increases earlier in the 1990s. And the percentages of classes being filled by early applicants have also continued to grow, making applying early to schools almost a necessity for students. Penn accepted 25 percent more students for the Class of 2004 early than they did for the Class of 2001. "People feel that they have to apply early decision or early action or their chances are nil," Williams College Acting Director of Admissions Richard Nesbitt said. Penn, Columbia and Yale universities and Dartmouth College have already filled more than 40 percent of their classes of 2004 with early decision applicants. Before 1998, Penn typically accepted only 30 percent of each class early. A step ahead Many admissions deans and high school guidance counselors say the message circulating around high schools is that colleges and universities give early decision and early action applicants an admissions edge. "Students feel that if they don't get in then, they won't get in at all," said Linda Miller, associate dean of admissions at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va. Adds Nesbitt, "You look at the stats, and in a way, [the students are] right." Many schools, he noted, admit as much as 60 to 65 percent of their classes early decision or early action. However, Linda Mallett, interim director of admissions at Cornell University, said the mentality that applying early carries an advantage is only partially responsible for the growing popularity of early application programs. "Students want to wrap the whole process up at an earlier point," Mallett added. "I'm not sure it's any more complicated than that." She argued that high school students are starting their searches earlier now because information is easily accessible on the Internet, enabling them to be ready to apply to schools in October of their senior year. But Stephen Singer, a guidance counselor at the Horace Mann School in Riverdale, N.Y., said that although students may be starting to gather information about schools earlier, they might not be doing so in very calm or rational ways. "Because there is so much media hype [about applying early]? more students are applying early than are ready to do so," Singer said. "There's a lot more energy and emotion expended, but not thought." Unfairly advantaged? Karen Kristof, associate director of Admission at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. -- which offers an early decision plan -- said early decision is a wonderful option for the student who has fallen in love with his or her first-choice college or university. She said, however, that applying early is often not an option for economically challenged students, who cannot take the risk of agreeing to attend a school without knowing in advance if they will receive enough financial aid. "It's just another way that poor or underrepresented students can be at an unfair disadvantage in the application process," Kristof said. Pat Tamborello, a college counselor at Plymouth-Whitemarsh High School in Plymouth Meeting, P.A., agreed, saying that the early decision process often seems to work against middle-class students. "If you are a low-income student, you might be reassured by someone that you'll get a good package," Tamborello said. "If you are an upper-income student, your parents might reassure you that they can afford the tuition." She said one of her students had planned this past fall to apply early decision to Princeton University -- his top choice -- but decided to apply regular decision due to concerns about tuition. "I tell students upfront to consider tuition," Tamborello added, noting that she offers to determine financial aid estimates for her students and their families. According to Nesbitt, some schools -- including Williams -- will release students from their early decision commitments if they are accepted but cannot afford the tuition. "The percentage of students who are receiving financial aid early decision is inevitably going to be lower than students applying later on," Nesbitt said, adding that about 43 percent of students admitted regular decision receive aid, as opposed to 30 percent of those accepted under the early decision plan. "Some schools offer aid to only 25 percent [of the early decision group]," Nesbitt added. Another option While many schools are experiencing an increase in early applications, some -- Williams and the University of Virginia, for instance -- are not seeing their early application totals rise. In fact, Nesbitt said, Williams reported a 20 percent decrease this year in early decision applications. He said the decline might stem from the amended early action policies of overlap schools like Harvard, Brown and Georgetown. The current non-binding early action policies at these institutions allow students to apply early to multiple schools with early action programs. Previously, the schools let students apply early to only one school. "[These schools] diverted a lot of the applications away from places like Williams and Amherst," Nesbitt said, explaining that students feel like they have nothing to lose if they apply early action. "People say I'll throw my hat in and apply to a few early-action schools? maybe I'll get into my top choice or my back-up," he added. John Thurston, associate director of Admission at Brown University -- which saw a 66 percent increase in early action applications after changing its policy this year -- admitted that some seniors take advantage of the early action policy, applying early to many schools, including back-ups -- and taking places away from regular decision applicants. "For a number of people, it's becoming a strategy, an end itself rather than a means to an end," agreed Cigus Vanni, a guidance counselor at Bishop Eustace Preparatory School in Pennsauken, N.J. Nancy Siegel, a guidance counselor at Millburn High School in Millburn, N.J., said high school counselors are dissatisfied especially with the early action program. "Too many students use early action not as a choice, but as an alternative," Siegel added. A continuing trend Overwhelmingly, admissions deans and guidance counselors agree that the trend in increasing early decision and early action applicants numbers will continue throughout the next several years. But according to Miller, the trend has already begun to reverse itself. She said many students have started to realize that there often is no great advantage to applying early. For example, at the University of Virginia, Miller said, the number of early applicants peaked about three years ago, and since has remained steady. Singer, a New York high school guidance counselor, said the early application numbers will continue to grow until around 2008 when the children of baby boomers -- the so-called "echo-boom" -- finish college.

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