Angela Dixson was excited to hear that Princeton University had followed archrival Harvard's lead in dropping its early admissions program. She only wishes the school had done it last year.
The 17-year-old senior at one of the top college-prep high schools in the country, Cincinnati's Walnut Hills High School, is #1 in her class, a veteran on the varsity soccer team, student congress president and a volunteer for the Red Cross, but she decided against applying to Ivy League schools like Harvard and Princeton because of the uncertainty surrounding her financial-aid requirements.
"I would have applied [early] to those schools, but I didn't, mostly because of the financial-aid part," Dixson said. "I couldn't go forward without knowing how much aid I would get or if I would get in. It was just too much of a long shot. But I think it will definitely open the door to other students."
Early admissions programs have been criticized for benefiting upper-income students who can afford to make the early commitment without regard to financial aid and who already have an advantage over lower-income rivals when it comes to applying to elite schools.
Though the change is too late for students like Dixson, the news about the elimination of early admissions is encouraging for the class of 2008 and beyond, as the trend of leveling the playing field for low-income students means they might have a better shot at attending Ivy League schools.
"I think it's important for there to be momentum, because I think it's the right decision," Princeton President Shirley Tilghman told The New York Times on Tuesday about her school's announcement.
At a meeting in June, the presidents of Amherst, Williams, Swarthmore, Barnard and seven other liberal arts colleges also said they would consider rolling back early admissions, the Times reported. The University of Delaware announced in May that it would do away with early admissions.
The move by the schools — which are in fierce competition for the top students — came after their presidents said they were uncomfortable with the system they had helped establish, which encourages families to spend thousands of dollars for private college counselors, creates obstacles for low-income applicants and results in some colleges driving up the number of applicants in order to turn more away so they appear more selective.
One of the chief reasons Princeton abandoned early admissions was the undue pressure it puts on low-income students, who are forced to commit to the university before comparing financial-aid offers from other schools.
That was Dixson's dilemma. Realizing the early admissions process had a big impact on students who needed financial aid, Dixson said she watched as peers applied early while she was forced to hang back. "It occurred to me [that the process was not fair]," Dixson said. "I had a friend who applied to Washington University [early] to increase his chance of getting in, but for him money is not an object."
"It's the right decision for universities in terms of equity," Tilghman told the Times. "It's the right decision for the high school students, for their parents and for their guidance counselors, who have found the two-tier system to be fraught with complexity, and that has encouraged a gaming of the system that I don't think is good for any of us."
Just waiving early admissions policies might not be enough to level the playing field, though. Time magazine reported that a year after the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill banned early admissions in 2002, the number of fee waivers — representing the number of students with limited means — decreased by 1.2 percent.
The school had to go one step further and introduce the Carolina Covenant in 2003, which allows students from low-income families to graduate from the university without any debt. The Covenant program — similar to programs many Ivy League schools already have — caused fee-waiver applications to increase by 38.9 percent from 2004 to 2006.