Provost's Message on Early Decision Admissions
During the past several weeks, a number of members of the faculty have asked if Northwestern is likely to follow Harvard’s recent decision to end Early Action admissions, beginning with applicants for Fall 2008. Early Action is a program that allows students to apply and receive notification of whether they have been accepted or denied earlier than other applicants; students accepted through the program are not required to enroll. Harvard’s announcement was followed by announcements from Princeton and the University of Virginia that they would end their Early Decision programs, which is similar to Early Action but requires students to enroll if accepted.
The rationale offered by leaders of these institutions centers on the issue of fairness and the perception if not practice of “advantaging the advantaged while disadvantaging the disadvantaged.” Announcements from these colleges state that their early applicant pools have tended to be significantly less racially and ethnically diverse and considerably more affluent than their regular pool. Couple this with the fact that these institutions fill a large percentage of their freshmen classes via early applicants (one-half of Harvard’s Class of 2010, according to publicly viewable data), and one can understand their concerns.
I asked Michael Mills, Associate Provost for Enrollment, to conduct an analysis of our Early Decision applicant pool. Mills found that Northwestern’s experience with Early Decision differs markedly from those of most, if not all, of our East Coast peer institutions in many respects. In fact, our two applicant pools—Regular and Early—have more similarities than dissimilarities in key areas, including racial and ethnic composition, parental income, lower income populations eligible for Pell Grants, the composition of financial aid packages and the percentage of students qualifying for them, the type of high schools applicants attend (private, public, etc.) and more. Also, the percentage of our enrolled freshman class this fall (the class of 2010) that were Early Decision applicants was only 26%, 3 rd -lowest of the eighteen peer institutions we benchmark ourselves against, and has never eclipsed 30%.
Based upon our review of the ways in which Early Decision has been practiced here, we have no current plans to abandon Early Decision. We believe that the benefits of Early Decision—allowing very focused students whose first-choice institution is Northwestern to gain acceptance in December, and spreading out the application reading and processing burden on our Admission staff so they can continue to make thoughtful decisions—are real and compelling. We will, of course, watch for any significant shifts in our Early Decision pool in the coming years, and we will monitor decisions made by our peers.
Lawrence B. Dumas