University of Virginia to End Early Decision Program in Admissions

Sept. 25, 2006 — As part of its continuing efforts to increase accessibility for low-income students, the University of Virginia will no longer offer an early decision program for applicants beginning with students applying for the class that will enter U.Va. in the fall of 2008.

“This action is an effort to remove an identified barrier to qualified low-income students and their families who have long believed that top-tier universities were not within their reach," said University President John T. Casteen III. “It is a logical next step in the ongoing effort to remedy flaws in the national and state systems of financial aid for needy students, to provide incentives for all students to pursue the most rigorous high school programs of which they are capable, and thus to qualify for admission to the top colleges, to broaden the range of economic diversity represented within the student body.

“It has become the case since about 1990 that few students from low-income families have applied for early decision,” Casteen said. “The reasons are several, but in the end the effect of early decision nationally and here in Virginia appears to be that the opportunity that early decision has represented has come somehow to be the property of our most advantaged applicants rather than the common property of all applicants.

“The message is that the playing field is level for all who aspire to compete for admission, and thus that secondary schools everywhere should both promote enrollment in Advanced Placement and other top courses and encourage students who seize the challenge to apply to any college or university that might be their goal.”

U.Va. has had a binding early decision program since the 1960s. Students who apply to the University by Nov. 1 agree to enroll at U.Va. if they are offered admission. Each year about 30 percent of the entering class is composed of early decision applicants.

Earlier this month Harvard announced that it was eliminating its non-binding early action program under which students who apply by December receive early notification of their status but are not obligated to attend. Princeton followed suit by eliminating its binding early decision program.

John Blackburn, dean of admission at U.Va., said that consideration had been given in the past to altering or eliminating the early decision option. Blackburn said a key element in making the decision was the introduction three years ago of AccessUVa, the University’s innovative financial aid program designed to make U.Va. more affordable and to reduce or eliminate student debt.

“While our staff had discussed the pros and cons of eliminating early decision or moving to an early action plan that is not binding, the reality of how few low-income students apply for any early plans really was compelling for me,” said Blackburn. “As we continue enhancing the AccessUVa program, our early decision program seems inconsistent with the goals of AccessUVa.”

According to Blackburn, only one student who qualified for the maximum financial aid package available under AccessUVa applied under the early decision plan last year. In addition, fewer than 20 of the 947 students accepted under the early decision plan last December applied for financial aid.

“I have been involved in recent months with a national task force on low-income students, and there is little doubt that early admission programs put low-income students at a significant disadvantage in the process,” Blackburn said. “This runs counter to our goal of increasing the diversity of our student body.”

In addition to citing potential inequities that early decision programs create for less advantaged students, concerns have been raised by secondary school counselors about heightened pressure in the admissions process for students and the role that early decision plays in what has been described as a frenzied atmosphere.

Blackburn said that he does not anticipate any change in the evaluation system that is currently used, although it may require additional staff to read applications. “We are committed to the system under which each application is read by at least two different people before we make a decision,” Blackburn said.

Over the past 10 years, U.Va. has averaged slightly more than 2,300 early decision applications each year. When the early decision option is dropped, those applications will become part of the single admissions process, which has a Jan. 2 application deadline. The admissions staff will evaluate all of the applications, which have ranged between 14,500 and 16,000 over the past three years, between January and April 1.

“While this shift will intensify the evaluation portion of our work, it does mean that our counselors will be able to continue visiting students in schools and communities through November rather than having to be in the office to read the early decision applications,” Blackburn said. “That will provide us with additional time to devote to recruiting students from diverse backgrounds.”