Sep 17, 2016

Penn reverses direction on ‘Restrictive’ Early Decision

Late yesterday, the University of Pennsylvania issued a statement reversing direction on a policy announced last summer that would have prohibited students applying Early Decision (ED) to Penn from applying to other private institutions under nonbinding Early Action (EA) programs.

According to the Penn Office of Undergraduate Admissions, “…Penn will continue the practice of allowing Early Decision applicants to also apply to other institutions through their respective non-binding admission process, as we have in years past.”

But this isn’t the first time Penn has reconsidered the terms of its peculiar twist on Early Decision. The original policy as outlined on the admissions website would have barred students from applying Early Action to any other institution—public or private.  After an immediate firestorm of criticism, the policy was very quickly revised to allow students to apply Early Action to public institutions while still imposing the rule on students considering EA applications to the University of Chicago, MIT and other selective and not-so-selective private colleges and universities.

So why would Penn try to restrict Early Decision, which contractually binds a student to attend if admitted? According to sources within the admissions office, an increasing number of students were trying to break ED contracts. It was felt that early action decisions coming at about the same time as Penn’s ED offers were tempting students with better options to bolt from their commitment. The solution was to simply take this possibility off the table.

Besides, according to Penn’s statement reversing the RED policy, the language used to restrict Early Decision was “similar to Single Choice Early Action” used by competing institutions such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford. So what’s the difference—right?

The difference was that in the highly competitive marketplace for top students, the new Penn policy was forcing applicants to make a choice they might not have been ready to make. In fact, a series of conversations with students considering Penn backed by chatter on message boards suggested that students were deciding against taking a chance on Penn’s difficult-to-crack Early Decision program for greater flexibility to apply EA to other schools. 

In other words, it seemed at least possible that Penn might be losing early applicants—an outcome that the very competitive and numbers-conscious admissions office might not have seen coming.

“For us, it drops Penn from a possible ED school to only being a possible RD [regular decision] school, which is probably not what they had in mind,” commented one parent on College Confidential. 

Another parent agreed, “My kid went from a very likely Penn ED candidate to quite possibly not applying at all.”

But of course the Penn admissions office would not frame its decision to reverse course on Early Decision that way. Instead, Penn’s statement refers to “insightful dialogue among segments of the counseling community” and suggests that “students interested in Penn feel most supported when they are able to apply to other institutions under non-binding admissions plans.”  And since the objective of Penn’s admissions policies is “to help students make informed decisions, and not to produce additional concern around the application process,” they decided to drop a policy that may or may not have had the potential of hurting their application numbers, which by the way, they could easily see evidence of by now.

And it was probably a wise decision. As a parent trying to puzzle out Penn’s need for restricting Early Decision said, “In the fast changing world of higher education making one single bad contrarian move could dethrone you from your perch for decades. No school is willing to risk that now, [e]specially under the harsh light of yearly rankings.”

Penn’s experiment has evidently failed, and another chapter closes on the increasingly bizarre world of college admissions. That doesn’t mean, however, that some new and even more twisted policy designed to capture control over the process and numbers won’t appear on some college admissions website in the coming year. But it is encouraging to see that Penn certainly knew when to back off and did so early enough for students to adjust application strategies.

Disclosure: Nancy Griesemer is a proud graduate of the University of Pennsylvania College for Women (CW) — a designation the university no longer uses.

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