What will they think of next? First there was Early Decision.  Then came Early Action, an opportunity for a student to receive an admissions decision early but without obligation to commit to enroll. 


That morphed into Restrictive Early Action.  As I have previously argued, I have always felt that Restrictive EA is a misnomer.  Restrictive Early Action is really non-binding Early Decision. 


When NACAC defined early admission options back in the 1990s, it drew the line between Early Decision and Early Action as binding vs. non-binding.  That was certainly a defensible choice at the time, but within a couple of years several of the Ivies and other highly selective schools sought to keep their Early Action application numbers from going through the roof and threatened to leave NACAC unless they were allowed to implement Restrictive Early Action.  Had the ED/EA distinction been built around single choice/multiple choice rather than binding/non-binding, those schools would have operated a form of Early Decision, where a student applies to a single school during the early application, but allowed students to wait until May 1 to deposit.


Does Restrictive Early Action constitute restraint of trade?  Students are told that they may apply early as long as they refrain from applying to a particular class of institutions at the same time.  The same is true of Early Decision, but with ED there is an implied contract between college and student that in exchange for a commitment to enroll if accepted, the student will receive a decision earlier than other applicants.  There is benefit to both parties.


That is not the case in Restrictive EA. It can be argued, of course, that the rules of Restrictive Early Action don’t prevent students from applying to other institutions, just from applying to those institutions early, so no restraint of trade.  But as institutions take larger percentages of their freshman classes early (which happens more with ED than EA), having to wait to apply to a school until the regular application process may severely jeopardize a student’s chances of being admitted.  Given that one original justification of Restricted Early Action was to limit Early Action numbers, has Restrictive Early Action become a descendent of the Overlap Group, where the federal government concluded that the practice of colleges standardizing financial aid offers was a potential antitrust violation?


So what will they think of next?  Now we have the answer to that question.  In the past week there has been considerable chatter among counselors on e-lists such that run by ACCIS about the University of Pennsylvania’s new “Restrictive” Early Decision plan.


Penn doesn’t call its plan “Restrictive,” but it has definitely increased the limitations it places on Early Decision, to the point that its Early Decision plan is more restrictive than any other plan I’m aware of (although not quite as restrictive as I believed up until a couple of minutes ago, as I had originally read it as restricting applications to public university EA programs).  Penn says that Early Decision applicants may not simultaneously apply to any other Early Decision, Restrictive Early Action, or Early Action program, with the following exceptions:


            --Public colleges or universities with non-binding early admission;  

            --Foreign colleges and universities;

            --Any college or university with a non-binding early scholarship deadline.


The restriction that is new is on applying to ordinary (as opposed to Restrictive) Early Action programs.  Which begs the question, Why the change?  I asked a member of the Penn Admissions staff earlier this week during the annual group travel with Harvard, Stanford, Duke, and Georgetown.  Apparently Penn is seeing more cases where students who apply Early Decision and are accepted instead accept an Early Action offer from another school (some of the e-list chatter named places like MIT and Chicago).  I don’t know if this a new phenomenon, but Penn’s statement on Early Decision also makes clear that “Penn’s Early Decision program supersedes (emphasis theirs) any other early notifications.  If you are admitted to Penn, then you are expected to enroll.”


That raises another question.  At what point does a student who applies to an Early Decision program commit to enroll?  Is it at the point of applying, or is it at the point where the student deposits after being accepted?  It is clearly unethical for a student to renege on an Early Decision commitment after depositing, but is it unethical for a student admitted through Early Decision to decide not to accept the offer of admission?  My assumption as a counselor has always been that a student should not enter into an Early Decision agreement unless he or she is absolutely sure about the intend to enroll, with the one reason to back out being for financial reasons, but is an Early Decision application the same thing as an enrollment deposit?  If so, should Penn increase the Early Decision application fee to equal the enrollment deposit (with a refund for students not accepted), and would that accomplish the same objective as prohibiting students from applying to all other Early Action programs?


Long time readers of this blog know that we love posing questions without providing answers, but this development raises some broader questions for our profession.  Early admission programs are good for some colleges and some students, but are they good for college admission as a whole?  What values does early admission promote and what values does it subvert?  Is it time to rethink the definitions found in the Statement of Principles of Good Practice?  Do we want to return to the days when every college and university has its own application guidelines and restrictions?  Is there any way to enforce Early Decision at a time when a new generation of students and parents may understand “commitment” differently?  Will those who choose to game the system find ways to do so no matter what the rules are?


I understand Penn’s concerns, but I’m far from convinced that, to quote Gilbert and Sullivan, “the punishment fits the crime.”  Our profession needs to have a big-picture conversation about early admission and other admissions practices to make sure that we work together to maintain public trust in what college admission and the college admission profession stands for. 


We should pay heed to an American icon whose list of accomplishments includes founding a great university, none other than the University of Pennsylvania, in fact. Benjamin Franklin told the signers of the Declaration of Independence, “We must all hang together, or most assuredly, we will all hang separately.”  That’s true for our profession as well.