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UNC drops early-decision admissions plan

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has become the first major, highly selective U.S. university to eliminate its binding early decision admission plan, starting with freshmen applying for fall 2003 admission.

The change aims to encourage Carolina applicants to focus on which college or university might best match their interests and talents, rather than on which application plan might improve their chances of being admitted.

"Carolina has taken this step because we believe it will best serve our future students and their families," said Chancellor James Moeser. "We want to encourage students to approach their education seriously, not by using strategy, and we hope to contribute to a national climate that encourages thoughtful choice."

Carolina’s early decision plan – one of three admissions deadlines open to freshman applicants – allowed students to apply by Oct. 15 and be notified about their status by Dec. 3. Under the program, students applying early were required to enroll at Carolina if they were offered admission.

UNC will keep its early-action program, under which students apply by Nov. 15 and are notified in late January, and its regular schedule, with applications due by Jan. 15 and notifications in late March. Neither program requires that admitted students enroll at Carolina, and both allow applications to other schools.

Dr. Jerome Lucido, vice provost for enrollment management and director of admissions, said the change follows a careful internal review of UNC admissions policies.

"We've observed growing pressure on students to choose colleges earlier simply because they believe it is their best chance to get in, without the benefit of the considerable maturation that takes place in the senior year of high school," he said. "In that respect, we don't feel that our early decision plan serves the students' interests or the interest of good college decision-making, and we feel a responsibility to that."

An option at many colleges for decades, binding early decision requires students to commit to one college early in their senior year, about half a year earlier than usual. Carolina adopted binding early decision many years ago, dropped it in the early 1970s and resumed the practice for freshmen applying for admission in fall 2000.

"Binding early decision has long been a staple in college admissions, but it has now become a different phenomenon than when it was introduced," Lucido said. "It was designed to serve very few strong students who were clearly set on one college or another, and it seemed to be in everyone's best interest to let them make that choice early."

Students who were sure could avoid the time and expense of applying to numerous colleges.

In recent years, however, the plans have become controversial. Parents, guidance counselors and others have claimed that the plans have placed undue pressure on high school seniors, forcing them to choose their college long before most of them are ready to do so. Critics also say universities have relaxed their admissions requirements for students applying early in order to increase their selectivity statistics. Since less competitive students are being admitted through binding early plans, some say, students believe they must apply early to have a strong chance for admission.

At Carolina, admission rates for early-decision candidates have been much the same as for those applying through the two non-binding plans. UNC is a state-supported university with requirements tied to the number of students admitted from both North Carolina and out of state. (About 82 percent of UNC’s entering freshman class is comprised of North Carolinians under a UNC Board of Governors policy.)

Among in-state applicants, UNC admitted 58 percent of the early-decision candidates in 2000 compared with 62 percent of the later pool; 56 percent compared to 68 percent in 2001; and 57 percent compared to 55 percent last fall. For out-of-staters, UNC also admitted higher percentages from the regular pool.

"Except for this year, we've tended to be tougher on early-decision applicants," Lucido said. "We did not make decisions differently early than we did later. This is in direct opposition to what most students believe about early decision."

Carolina provided estimated financial aid awards to early decision candidates, he said, and remained receptive to releasing bound students later if serious financial difficulties arose or a student developed a sound and sincere worry that UNC was not right for him or her.

"We tried to operate in a responsible way, and we believe that other schools do so as well," Lucido said. "But we have observed that these programs are creating a national frenzy about how to play the college admissions game."

Another concern is that early decision can favor students from private schools and affluent public school districts, where school personnel are more likely to be in tune to the edge gained by applying early -- another realization behind Carolina's change. The internal review, conducted over the past several months, showed that 82 percent of those admitted early-decision were white, as opposed to 72 percent from the later pool.

"No matter how responsibly you run an early-decision program, it still tends to be a group of students who are more financially able and less diverse," Lucido said. "So the choice we're making now is consistent with UNC's time-honored mission of access to students of all backgrounds."

Binding early decision boosts a college's yield -- the percentage of students admitted who accept -- because early decision students must accept, he said. It also tends to increase selectivity, the percentage of applicants who are admitted. Such measures are among the criteria used in rankings including those compiled annually by U.S. News and World Report magazine.

"On balance, binding early decision is much more in the college's interest than the student's," Lucido said.

Students will make better decisions near the end of high school, when they're better informed, have had more time to visit campuses and are more likely to know their financial aid options at different institutions, he said.

Carolina could risk losing some top applicants if its peers continue binding early decision, Lucido said. But he doubts that will happen.

The average SAT score of students admitted at UNC rose from 1285 in 2000 to 1301 for the class entering this fall, he said. Last fall, UNC admitted just 38 percent of those who applied. Of 3,687 students who enrolled, 36 percent were among the top 10 students in their classes; enrollees' average SAT score was 1257, a 37-point increase in five years.

"I don’t anticipate a change in the trend of increasingly qualified entering classes," Lucido said. "We simply have come to the conclusion that students choosing Carolina would be best served by making thoughtful, well considered choices. And Carolina will benefit from having students who are certain that the choice they made was for the right educational reasons."

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