Bock: Early Decision admissions “works in the context of Swarthmore”

Last night, Student Council sponsored a fireside chat about Swarthmore’s Early Decision program where Dean of Admissions Jim Bock ’90 gave a modified version of the report on Early Decision that he gave the Board of Managers earlier in the semester.

The policy was initially not up for review this year, but “Harvard made it up for review” with its widely-publicized decision to drop Early Action earlier this fall. The University of Delaware and the University of North Carolina actually decided to drop their own early admissions programs before Harvard, but the press did not pick up the story until Harvard made its decision, shortly followed by Princeton and the University of Virginia. Their decision will take effect in the fall of 2008 when admitting the class of 2012.

Swarthmore began offering binding Early Decision in 1976 with two rounds. For the first round, applications are due November 15th and decisions are delivered by December 15th. For the second round, applications are due January 2nd and decisions are delivered by February 15th. The system has remained in place to this day, but “it only became an issue a few years ago.” Bock strongly believes that Early Decision is “not inherently evil or bad… you have to examine how it is put into practice.” He explained that for many schools, Early Decision might not be a good idea, saying “I don’t know how it works everywhere, but it works here.”

For the class of 2010, there were around 425 Early Decision applicants, 37% of whom were admitted, and 4300 regular decision applicants, 17% of whom were admitted. Swarthmore has a policy of limiting its Early Decision admits to under 20% of all admits, and indeed, only 17% of this year’s acceptance letters were mailed to Early Decision applicants, leaving over 80% of acceptances free for the regular decision pool. Since six out of ten students accepted in the regular decision round choose to attend other institutions, this results in around 40% of the class being Early Decision. This makes Swarthmore vastly different from Harvard, where 38% of acceptances were generally handed out during the Early Action round and over 50% of the class was Early Action.

The primary argument against Early Decision is that it privileges students who have the resources to apply early and who do not have to worry about financial aid. At Swarthmore, however, the Early Decision and regular decision pools are similar with regard to the percentage of students who qualify for financial need, and also with regard to the average need of those students. Some years, said Bock, the average need is actually higher for Early Decision students than it is for regular decision students. The distribution between public and private schools is also even between the two rounds, and more students of color than ever before are also applying Early Decision, often in the second round, a change that Bock attributes to the Discovery Weekend recruitment and visitation program.

Instead of shutting out underprivileged applicants, Swarthmore’s Early Decision program has given admissions more ability to shape the class. “Swarthmore has never been more affordable or more accessible for the most qualified and diverse students.” He pointed to the fact that in the class of 2010, 41% of students are domestic students of color and 14% are first-generation college students.

Early Decision is “not a legally binding contract,” said Bock, “and we won’t force a student to attend if they can’t afford it.” Students are notified of Swarthmore’s decision in time to apply to other colleges if they so choose. In practice, one or two families a year withdraw from early decision. Bock follows these students, and he assured us that “they all have options… they end up at good schools.” In the past, most of these families have actually been upper-to-middle class families who choose large amounts of merit aid over Swarthmore’s financial aid package, which is based solely on need.

Another argument against early decision is that it increases the “feeding frenzy” of applying to colleges by forcing students to think about college earlier, but Bock says that for students who are looking at colleges of Swarthmore’s caliber, “you need to be thinking about it starting in junior year.” He also feels that doing away with early decision would actually lead to more frenzy by leading to more applications in the regular decision period, “which creates more stress for students, families, and colleges alike.”

When Bock opened the floor to questions, students were curious about the possibility of moving to Early Action. “The concern there,” said Bock, “is that those schools end up losing most of the kids unless they’re a Harvard or Yale.” He described the case of one college that admits more students in Early Action than it can fit in its entire class, knowing that it will lose over half of the people it admits during Early Action. When students apply Early Decision, particularly first-round Early Decision, “we know it’s their first choice and that there’s no gaming.”

Another student asked whether getting rid of first-round Early Decision would give Swarthmore more time for recruiting students. Bock said no, explaining that we already have a extra cushion of two or three weeks for traveling and recruitment because we have fewer Early Decision applications to read than larger schools. Increasing that cushion would not help very much because “we see diminishing returns after mid-November.”

There were a series of questions about acceptance rates for different groups within the pool. 37-39% of legacies are generally accepted, but Bock says there is a “very minor” preference for legacies. The reason so many of them are accepted is generally that their pool is strong with regards to scores, grades, and fit for Swarthmore. Most legacies apply in the regular decision pool.

The question of how many athletic recruits are accepted is a “tricky one” because there are many more recruits in the pool than are actually recorded as being in the pool. While the numbers from last year say that 100 recruits were accepted out of a pool of 250, the initial pool was much larger, because there are many decisions made by coaches and the admissions department that winnow down the number of recruits who Swarthmore will actually focus on. Bock explained that “we also give preference to people who will help Music, Dance, creative writing, and others… there’s a little bit of preference in a lot of different areas.”

Bock concluded by stressing the fact that Early Decision has to be considered on a college-by-college basis, taking into account the larger context of their applicant pool and their admissions policies. Swarthmore has a very self-selecting pool of Early Decision students, said Bock, giving as an example the fact “senioritis doesn’t really happen with our early decision pool.” Admissions sends students letters over the summer if their grades fall dramatically after acceptance, “and we send more of those to Regular Decision kids than to Early Decision kids… slacking off is another thing that just doesn’t happen in our pool.”

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