In Focus: Why early action doesn’t apply to Northwestern

Jillian Sandler

For incoming Northwestern student Aric DiLalla, one of the 814 students admitted early decision to NU’s class of 2016, committing to NU was a daunting choice.

Before deciding to apply early, the Raleigh, N.C., native said he had to weigh the risk of graduating from college with significant debt against being able to attend his dream school. Because early decision programs require students to commit to their chosen school before applying, DiLalla said he was essentially agreeing to enroll at a university he was not sure he could afford.

“My (interest) in Northwestern kind of pushed me to accept the outcome. Whether that meant more loans or to accept more debt, I was willing to do that to end up at Northwestern,” DiLalla said. “That was a conversation I had with my parents and my advisers at school.”

With early admission programs, students apply to a college by November through either early decision or early action and receive an admission decision the next month. Early decision binds students to attend their chosen school if accepted, while early action students do not have to attend their school and have until May 1 to accept their offer of admission.

A common criticism against the binding early decision program is that it does not allow students to compare financial aid offers from other universities. Some of NU’s peer institutions, such as Harvard University and Princeton University, have identified this as an unfair disadvantage to low-income students and instead use non-binding early action programs. This allows students to receive an admissions decision in December but wait until May to accept the offer. The program also lets applicants consider all of their financial aid packages and has resulted in more racially and socioeconomically diverse applicant pools.

NU, however, has opted to stick with early decision.

Early decision: Advantaging the advantaged?

Harvard, Princeton and the University of Virginia all announced in 2006 that they would be axing their early admittance programs starting the following year to benefit disadvantaged minority and low-income students.

“Early admission programs tend to advantage the advantaged,” Harvard’s then-interim President Derek Bok wrote in a statement after Harvard made the decision to end its early action program. “Students from more sophisticated backgrounds and affluent high schools often apply early to increase their chances of admission, while minority students and students from rural areas, other countries and high schools with fewer resources miss out.”

Bok also mentioned the early decision program’s disadvantage of preventing students from comparing financial aid offers as reason for abolishing it.

In 2011, however, Harvard, Princeton and UVA all re-implemented early admittance programs.

Greg Roberts, UVA’s dean of admission, said the school switched to a nonrestrictive early action program because an extremely low number of high-need students applied to UVA under the early decision program in 2006, the final year it was offered.

“The last year with early decision, we had just over 200 students who were considered high-need from very low-income families, and only one applied early,” Roberts said.

That year, Roberts said, 947 students applied early decision to UVA, but only 20 of those applied for financial aid. He said this prompted the university to move to an early action program that would allow applicants a greater opportunity to compare aid packages.

Harvard and Princeton decided to re-establish early programs after determining they were losing potential students to other schools that still offered the option to apply early.

“Many highly talented students, including some of the best-prepared low-income and underrepresented minority students, were choosing programs with an early-action option, and therefore were missing out on the opportunity to consider Harvard,” Michael D. Smith, Harvard’s dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, told Harvard Magazine last February.

Under this year’s early action programs, Harvard, Princeton and UVA all received a vastly larger number of applications from lower-income and minority students than they had before doing away with their previous early programs.

But NU administrators said the discrepancy of racial and socioeconomic diversity between its early and regular applicants is relatively small.

According to Carolyn Lindley, NU’s director of financial aid, the University provided need-based aid to 42 percent of those current freshmen who applied early decision, compared to 46 percent of this year’s freshman class overall.

The small difference has played a role in NU’s choice to stick with early decision, said Mike Mills, NU’s associate provost for enrollment.

When Harvard, Princeton and UVA did away with their early admittance programs, NU reviewed the composition of its early and regular applicant pools to determine whether the two groups significantly differed in socioeconomic status. Mills said no significant discrepancy was found, so NU kept its early decision option.

“We’re a little different; our early decision pool is not as different in income bands as our regular decision pool,” Mills said. “We don’t have any evidence that our early decision process disadvantages low-income kids, which is different than a lot of East Coast schools.”

Not the ‘Big Four’

In an interview with The Daily on Tuesday, NU President Morton Schapiro said he sees binding early decision as the most fitting program for NU. Schapiro said the percentage of accepted students who attend overall is relatively high but not high enough to implement non-binding early action programs similar to those at Harvard, Princeton, Yale and Stanford, the schools he dubbed “the Big Four.”

“The yield off of early action (for the Big Four) is so high that it’s effectively early decision … You’re not going to turn them down if you get in,” Schapiro said. “So for us, we’re selective enough that we can ask people to agree to come if we admit you, but we’re not the Big Four where you could have, effectively, early decision and call it early action.”

Shortly after Harvard, Princeton and UVA announced in 2006 they would drop their early admittance programs, former NU Provost Lawrence B. Dumas issued a statement addressing questions about whether NU was likely to abandon early decision. He stated there is little difference between NU’s early and regular decision pools, a contrast from peer institutions on the East Coast.

“In fact, our two applicant pools – regular and early – have more similarities than dissimi
larities 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, (and) the type of high schools applicants attend,” Dumas wrote.

In the letter, Dumas also acknowledged NU fills a smaller percentage of its classes with early applicants than do institutions such as Harvard, which he said filled 50 percent of its class of 2010 with early action students.

This, Dumas said, contributed to these schools’ concerns over the composition of their early applicant pool and the issue of promoting diversity within it. But NU is in a different situation – it does not rely so heavily on early admission to fill its incoming classes.

Schapiro said although the percentage of classes NU fills with early decision applicants has risen from 25 percent for the class of 2010 to 40 percent for the class of 2016, he does not want to further increase admittance levels.

“I wouldn’t push it much more than that,” he said. “There are schools that have been over 50 percent early. I think that’s not early any more; that’s regular and the rest is late. That’s semantics if you think about it. I don’t want to be one of those schools.”

Getting out of the bind

For this year’s applicants, Harvard and Princeton implemented single-choice early action programs, which allow their students to apply only to other non-binding early or rolling admissions programs at public or international institutions.

Despite the perception that early decision traps students into attending a school they may not be able to afford, early decision applicants have a right to opt out of their contract. According to Mills, NU has a penalty-free policy for students accepted early who receive a financial aid package that is not generous enough to feasibly pay for school. Mills said students in this situation will be freed from their binding agreement without needing to pay additional fees or incurring other penalties.

“I wish more families and students knew that that was their right,” Mills said. “The most frequent criticism you hear about early decision is precisely that students are unable to weigh competing offers and have to go (where they applied early), but that’s absolutely not true.”

Mills said this right is explicitly outlined in the bylaws of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, an organization that helps guide students into post-secondary education. In order to make this more widely known among prospective students, the University emailed a link to the bylaws to them and their parents.

Despite the email, incoming freshman DiLalla said he was not aware of this policy before he decided to apply early decision, adding he wishes he had been.

“My parents probably would have liked to know,” he said. “It was a challenging decision to decide to apply to Northwestern early.”

Very few applicants actually forgo their acceptance for financial reasons. Mills said of those accepted early decision for the Class of 2015, only 10 of about 700 students had to opt out of their contract.

But is the agreement really binding if students can opt out of it without penalty? Though all early decision applicants are required to sign an agreement, as well as obtain the signature of a parent or guardian and high school official, Mills said the agreement is not set in stone until the students pay their tuition and attend in the fall.

However, opting out of the early decision agreement for any reason means relinquishing one’s admission to NU altogether, according to Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Christopher Watson. He said this policy forces students and families to heavily consider their decision before making a final call.

“For the students who want to be released for financial aid reasons, (the Office of Undergraduate) Financial Aid has talked to the family prior to that,” Watson said. “They wouldn’t just (opt out) without a good conversation about what it all means.”

But for those whose financial aid packages will not suffice, no changes can be made to the offer unless there was a mistake filling out paperwork or demonstrated need has increased, Watson said.

“You can’t negotiate need offers here,” he said. “If they had some new information they wanted to provide, the financial aid office would obviously look at it, but they wouldn’t increase the offer, for early or regular (decision), just to entice the student to enroll. It is 100 percent need-based and that would be turning it into a merit program.”

The push for more aid

Both Watson and Mills said the early decision program has worked well for NU and is likely to stick around for a while. But one aspect the University is hoping to improve is financial aid, as tuition continues to increase and current NU students are already feeling the financial pressure.

Mills said next year NU will request an additional $14 million to allocate toward financial aid for students with need.

“These are huge jumps, but they have to be because times are tough,” Mills said. “We have to have (large) aid budgets to support these families. It’s (one of) the number-one funding priorities for the administration.”

Medill junior Hilary Sharp, who applied to NU early decision, said the fact that she didn’t qualify for financial aid is something that puts a bit of a strain on her family.

“I did not qualify which is really unfortunate, because no one can afford this, period,” she said. “It’s still pretty rough. My parents remind me every day of how much they’re paying for this school.”

Though NU’s admissions policy is need-blind and its financial aid policy is 100 percent need-based, its financial aid offers are not as expansive as those of schools such as Harvard, which expects no parental financial contributions for students whose families earn less than $65,000 per year and has no salary cap when it comes to offering need-based scholarships.

However, Schapiro emphasized strengthening financial aid as one of the University’s top priorities.

“The classic argument against early decision is you can’t shop the financial aid package – you’re buying the car before you know the price,” he said. “But the reality is, as long as we keep putting money into need-based aid, they’re getting an offer that is competitive with what they would have gotten (elsewhere).”

Both Watson and Schapiro maintain that early decision is the most efficient way to ensure that NU has students on campus who were set on becoming a Wildcat from the beginning of the application process.

“At the end of the day, it’s nice to have a cohort of students on campus for whom Northwestern was their favorite and their first choice,” Watson said. “You don’t necessarily get that guarantee with an early action program.”

NU was the first choice for Kunwoo Lee, an early decision admit who will enroll in Weinberg in the fall. Despite having applied for financial aid, Lee said money was not the deciding factor in considering his decision.

“Northwestern was my target school (since) sixth grade,” the Cresskill, N.J. native said. “My parents told me, ‘Don’t worry about the money; you’ll figure that out later. Just apply.'”

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