May 1, 2014

Breaking your bond: When students walk away from Early Decision agreements

Vanderbilt has ED I and II to give students a second chance.

Colleges just love binding Early Decision (ED) admission plans.  ED has proven to be an invaluable tool for predicting yield and making the lives of enrollment managers much simpler by taking some of the guesswork out of admissions.  Binding a student—at any point in the process—to attend an institution guarantees yield (the percent of students accepting an offer to attend) and enables an admissions office to easily craft the composition of a class.

Take Duke University, for example.  After receiving a record high number of ED applications, Duke admitted 47 percent of what will be the Class of 2018—three percent up from the previous year.  That’s almost half the class filled before some students even completed their applications.

"We'd prefer not to admit as much as half of the class [in early decision]," dean of undergraduate admissions Christoph Guttentag said in an interview with Duke Chronicle. "But if it turns out that there are more strong applicants who want to be at Duke more than any other school—why not take advantage of that?"

And Duke certainly is not alone.  The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) reports that for fall 2012, about 50 percent of colleges responding to their annual survey on admissions trends reported increases in the number of ED applications.  Nearly half of the colleges surveyed (47 percent) reported an increase in the number of students admitted through ED.

In fact, colleges like ED so much that several have implemented a series of early decision options—ED I and ED II, which gives applicants a second chance to make a binding commitment to their school.

But there are a few rules all parties agree to when they commit to Early Decision. First and foremost, the student agrees without question to attend the school.  

The student also agrees to withdraw all other applications.  The only “loophole” comes into play if the financial aid offered is not sufficient for the student to attend.

Of course, if a student didn’t indicate a need for financial aid on their application or if the household otherwise neglected to submit required financial aid forms, even this loophole might disappear.  

But not all students are playing the game by the rules.  After submitting fees and spending hours on essays demanded by various colleges and universities, students sometimes decide they want to see what their outcomes might have been.  Some want notches on the belt, but others are simply curious.  After all, they paid for a read.  Why not get it?

Unfortunately, neglecting to withdraw applications sometimes has negative consequences.  It can lead to “buyers’ regret” or a sudden change of heart about the college to which a student has already been admitted. What seemed like an advantage—an opportunity to be finished with applications early—becomes a prison.

And other factors can start to gnaw away at the resolve to attend.  Sometimes the student simply doesn’t bond with the ED school.  The application was pressured by what seemed like a requirement to apply early or forgo the opportunity, and the comfort level was never established. 

Other students might see an opportunity for more prestige or a better deal.  And on occasion, an applicant might have learned something new about themselves after the application and ED contract were submitted—a new passion or career path that the ED school can’t accommodate.

A student in this situation can certainly ask to be released from the ED agreement.  In fact, colleges have reported an uptick in such requests, along with student requests to invoke the financial aid loophole.

But if a college declines to release the student from their commitment—for whatever reason—the unhappy student is left with a moral choice:  go to the school or break their bond by walking away.

“ED should not be a whimsical act or a device used for acceptance,” said Ann Rossbach, a Certified Educational Planner with a consulting practice in New Jersey.  “It is a serious decision with consequences that affect many other people.”

These consequences involve not just the student and parent who signed the contract, but also the high school and the guidance counselor who also made a commitment.

“Any high school counselor who knows NACAC policy on this would refuse to send the final transcript to any college except the one with the ED admit,” explained Hannah Serota, who is both college counselor at the McLean School, in Potomac, Maryland, and an independent educational consultant in Loudoun County, Virginia. “[The student] can’t enroll at another school without confirmation of graduation in the form of the final transcript. He or she would need to request a release from the ED commitment before the school counselor can send the final transcript elsewhere.”

And colleges have institutional memories.

Carolyn Francis, an independent educational counselor in Denver tells a cautionary tale of one high school’s experience.  “…my daughter’s school used to send a lot of kids to [a top-tier institution] until a student broke their ED contract.  Not one student has gotten in to [that school] since; they have been blackballed because of the behavior of one student—bad karma, all the way around!”

But pulling back the curtain on the incentives behind the growth of ED plans at elite colleges reveals an equally unattractive picture.

“Now that everything has been said that needs to be said about breaking the ED agreement, let’s identify ED for what it really is—a contract that benefits enrollment officers over student applicants, wealthy applicants over non-wealthy applicants, college-savvy applicants over non-savvy applicants, the status quo over increased access, and a component part of the ratcheting up of admission frenzy,” said Jeff Levy, a California-based independent educational consultant.  “A saner and more humane admission system would scrap it, but we all know that’s not likely to happen.”

And look for the frenzy to intensify next year, as applicants take a close look at admission patterns at schools such as Duke and feel the squeeze to apply Early Decision, even when they are not absolutely certain.

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