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Q&A: Michael Mills Explains Northwestern's Decision to Keep Early Admission

After reviewing its early decision practices, Northwestern University has decided to continue to allow high school seniors to apply in the fall and get an admission decision by mid-December. Michael Mills, associate provost for University enrollment, gives an explanation of how Northwestern arrived at its decision.

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January 9, 2007 | by Stephen Anzaldi

After reviewing its early decision practices, Northwestern has decided to continue to allow high school seniors to apply in the fall and get an admission decision by mid-December. The announcement by Provost Lawrence B. Dumas follows decisions last year by a number of universities to end their early application programs. The main rationale was that early decisions put low-income applicants at a disadvantage because they are denied the opportunity to compare aid packages.

Dumas requested a review of the University's early admission process, and an explanation of how Northwestern arrived at its decision is outlined in the following interview with Michael Mills, associate provost for University enrollment.

Why is Early Decision a good policy for Northwestern?

There are two fundamental reasons.

First, we don't see the same inequities cited by other schools when we look at the pools of early applicants and regular-decision students. Recent announcements, from Harvard, for example, state that early applicant pools have tended to be significantly less racially and ethnically diverse and considerably more affluent than the regular pools. At Northwestern, however, these two groups exhibit more similarities than dissimilarities in key areas, including racial and ethnic composition, parental income, lower income populations eligible for Pell Grants, composition of financial aid packages and percentage of students qualifying for them and the type of high schools applicants attend (private, public, etc.) So that analysis satisfied us that we weren't creating a disadvantage for students.

Second, the scope of Early Decision, as practiced here, is very different from programs at our peer institutions, such as Harvard, Princeton and Virginia. We generate fewer early decision applications, and applicants make up a much smaller proportion of our incoming class. Early applicants represented about 25 percent of our most recent freshman class. Harvard, on the other hand, filled approximately 50 percent of its Class of 2010 through early application, according to public data.

What are the real advantages?

For those high school students absolutely committed to attending Northwestern, an early admission relieves a lot of pressure for the remainder of senior year.

Prospective students seem to agree. We saw early applications rise 7 percent last year.

And for those of us in admissions, it helps us space our reading of applications. We get so many that it's difficult to get them all read by April 1. If we let everyone apply by January 1, I'm not sure we could complete the entire review process in time.

How is financial aid factored into Early Decision?

Northwestern is in a somewhat unique and very fortunate position of being able to provide aid packages to match entire need. In other words, when students who apply early receive an acceptance letter by mid-December, they get an aid letter shortly thereafter. So there's no suspense in terms of 'Do we provide a scholarship to help meet need?' We do. That's our 'need-blind' pledge to students.

The disadvantage that has been the subject of many news articles in recent years refers to schools unable to meet 100 percent of financial need. There's a real risk for early applicants in those cases. They're put in the position of having to commit to a school without knowing for sure what type of aid package they'll receive.

But there's a little-known caveat -- a principle of good practice -- that is honored by members of our professional association of admission counselors. It enables early applicants who, in their estimation, receive an inadequate financial aid offer to pull out of an agreement. It's legal, they don't have to enroll and they're free to apply to other schools. But I get the sense that many students are unaware of it.

Topics: People