U Penn tightens the screws on Early Decision

University of Pennsylvania

Just when you thought the process of applying to college could not possibly get more complicated, the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) introduced a strange new twist, further restricting the terms of its Early Decision (ED) policy. Under the new policy, students applying to Penn ED will not be permitted to apply Early Action to any other private college or university in the U.S. There are some exceptions for scholarship opportunities, but for all intents and purposes, Penn’s new “Restricted” Early Decision (RED) is the first in the nation and takes the concept of early decision to a whole new level of complexity.

Not to be confused with nonbinding Early Action (EA), Early Decision contractually commits a student to attend a particular college or university in exchange for being admitted early in the process. In other words, if admitted, the student definitely will attend.

Typically, the student applies early in the fall and receives a decision sometime in mid-December. With only a tiny loophole allowing a student to break a contract if the institution fails to provide enough financial aid to make attendance feasible, students admitted early decision must both withdraw all other applications and send an enrollment deposit directly after receiving notification of admission.

Until Penn tightened the screws, early decision was considered the most restrictive of all application options. So restrictive in fact, that these applications required additional special agreements signed by the student, a parent and the student’s school counselor.

It is a tool used primarily (not exclusively) by liberal arts institutions to control yield (percent of students offered admission who actually enroll) and the flow of students into the class. It also provides, in most cases, a distinct advantage to those willing to forego the option of comparing offers and commit early to a particular school. It’s usually considered a win/win by both parties.

According to Cigus Vanni, longtime member of the New Jersey Association for College Admission Counseling Executive Board and former member of the NACAC Professional Development Committee, over 200 institutions nationwide offered early decision last year. In fact, some colleges like early decision so much they expanded the option to include a second round — ED II which offers students and colleges all the same tactical advantages — only a little later in the application cycle. Some more expansive schools also offered a variety of early action options along with ED.

Interestingly, it appears the number of colleges offering the early decision option may be on the increase as institutions deal with how early FAFSA will affect recruitment, admissions, enrollment and yield. It may be that colleges offering early admission of any kind and providing financial aid packages with their admissions decisions are getting concerned about their power to control student enrollment decisions under the new timelines.

But Penn stands alone in its desire to restrict the most restrictive application option. It’s not enough that students may submit only one ED application and they relinquish the opportunity to look at other options as well as to wait until May 1 to send a deposit. They must also agree not to apply to institutions as early action candidates.

This means a student applying to Penn ED, cannot apply to Georgetown, MIT, Stanford, Tulane, the University of Miami or any other private institution as an early action candidate.

Although similar in the way it seeks to limit applicant options, this policy is not to be confused with Single Choice Early Action (Stanford, Harvard, Princeton, Yale) or Restrictive Early Action (Boston College, Georgetown, Notre Dame). But it does apply to colleges using these special early action options.

So why Restrictive Early Decision? According to sources within the Penn admissions office, they are seeing an increasing number of students trying to get out of their ED contracts for reasons not limited to financial aid. It is felt that early action decisions are tempting students with better or more desirable options. The solution would be to simply take this possibility off the table. Since students are required under the terms of their ED agreement to withdraw all other pending applications, which would leave only Regular Decision decisions coming later in the year, the temptation to break the contract and walk off would be lessened to a degree.

And Penn’s “yield” might be improved if only by a little bit.

When asked how big a problem this had become, Penn had “no information available” on the number of ED contracts broken last year or in previous years. Other sources familiar with Penn admissions suggested that at least within the past five years, the number was negligible.

For the record, students applying early under Penn’s Early Decision program “cannot simultaneously” apply to another private* college or university under their early notification program, including “Early Decision, Restrictive Early Action (also known as Single-Choice Early Action), or Early Action.” Students may apply to any

  • public college/university that offers non-binding admissions,
  • foreign college/university, or
  • college/university with non-binding early deadlines for scholarships.
  • Note that an earlier version of the policy published last week on the Penn website also covered early action programs at public institutions, including a student’s in-state options, but in the face of protests, Penn backed away and changed its restriction to cover only private institutions.

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