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Williams a Target in Early Admissions Probe, 2

This Wall Street Journal article, “Williams, Wesleyan, Middlebury Among Targets of Federal Early-Admissions Probe,” and associated news reports (here, here and here) merit a few days of discussion. Day 2.

The investigation has perplexed some in elite-college admissions circles, who say that sharing the information serves only to ensure that schools aren’t being misled about an applicant’s intentions, given their commitments elsewhere.

The admissions dean of a New England liberal-arts college that received the Justice Department letter said that the school swaps with about 20 other institutions the application-identification number, name and home state of students admitted early decision.

That dean said it is rare to find someone who violated the binding early-decision agreement by applying to more than one institution early.

Occasionally, the person said, they come across a student who was admitted early-decision at one school and still applied elsewhere during the regular application cycle. In those cases, the second school would withdraw the application because the candidate already committed elsewhere.

The dean said the schools don’t share information about regular-decision candidates, so an offer from one school wouldn’t affect outcomes elsewhere.

1) Any chance the unnamed dean is either Dick Nesbitt ’74 or Liz Creighton ’01? Note that reporter Melissa Korn and Williams Communications Chief Jim Reische served as co-chairs at a conference for media relations professionals. If Jim did arrange this, then kudos to him! The more that Eph administrators appear in the prestige press, the better.

2) Sure would be interesting to know the exact list of schools involved in this swap and the mechanism by which it occurs. Any “elite” school left out of this circle must feel like the kid sitting by himself in the high school cafeteria. Not that EphBlog would know anything about that . . .

3) Was this phrasing — “the second school would withdraw the application” — vetted by a lawyer? It would be one thing if Williams were to reject a student it had already accepted if that student applied elsewhere. That student has broken a promise she made to Williams, so Williams can take action. But for Harvard to reject — whoops, I mean “withdraw the application [of]” — a student just because Williams had accepted her in December seems more problematic, anti-trust-wise . . .

4) What about early action candidates? That is a much trickier issue. Does Harvard let Williams know if it has admitted a student early action? And, if so, does that fact play into the Williams admissions process? Of course, Williams knows that almost every high quality regular decision applicant (other than its own deferrals) applied somewhere else early. And you can be certain that we can (and should!) take account of that fact in making decisions. (That is, if you really love Williams so much, as you now claim, why didn’t you apply early?) But I would be shocked if schools traded early action information explicitly . . . But I have been shocked before!

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#1 Comment By anonymous On April 17, 2018 @ 10:13 am

I must be missing something. The numbers of ED applicants are so small – in comparision to RD- that I can’t imagine it worthwhile to share information to bust a rare student. But maybe underhandedness in ED is a much larger problem that I am aware of?

My kids both applied ED and their guidance counselor was very clear that she would not send out any records to any other schools during ED time and afterward, should they be accepted. She made it clear that her own reputation was at stake in this process. Is there an army of corrupt high school guidance counselors out there?

I think the bigger issue is the student who wiggles out of an ED acceptance claiming the financial package is insufficient. I don’t believe you should apply for ED unless you are prepared to accept whatever the financial offer is, including zero financial aid. This is also something my kids’ guidance counselor believes and discourages kids with huge need from applying anywhere ED.
Maybe she’s old-fashioned and unusually ethical?

Sharing information during RD makes total sense in terms of colluding re admits, financial aid, etc., but during ED? I don’t get it. Can someone fill me in?

#2 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On April 17, 2018 @ 10:22 am

> I can’t imagine it worthwhile to share information to bust a rare student.

Imagine better. Williams believes that it is worthwhile, as do other elite colleges. It makes them *very* angry when high school students try to “play” them.

#3 Comment By sigh On April 17, 2018 @ 10:45 am

First: I dislike ED and believe it should be EA and/or the admissions process should be rethought from the ground up.

in response to anonymous: if ED provides any benefit to the student, making it so the student has to be comfortable with the financial aid decision makes ED an (unintentionally) classist system (on top of the already classist ways of admissions more broadly). If only students whose families are comfortable paying full price or squeezing their financial needs to fit the school’s decision can apply ED, it’s one of the reasons for EA over ED as a better system.

More broadly, I can’t help but wonder at the timing of another DOJ inquiry into elite admissions. This is a small piece of a small percentage of higher education access problems. But it fits a narrative of liberal elites opportunity hoarding against an aggreived white working/middle class. That is, this is identity politics of the revanchist type. Railing against the coastal elites, like elite SLACs or Harvard admissions. I don’t have full confidence this is in good faith based on concerns over equity in access for marginalized people of all types and races or a true anti-trust concern (sharing the info of people who have signed an agreement and then did not follow that agreement seems reasonable on its face).

#4 Comment By Doug On April 17, 2018 @ 10:47 am

Irrelevant to this thread, but I wanted to alert EphBlog to Zach Wood ’18 doing big things (that the college refuses to acknowledge because he has embarassed the college with his sensibility over and over).

He was a speaker for TED 2018. Not TEDx: the genuine TED series that millions will view once the talks are edited and uploaded online. He was part of the premier lineup alongside incredibly influential scientists and artists. See: https://ted2018.ted.com/speakers

He also has a book deal with Penguin Random House. It features Sawyer Quad on the cover. https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/562651/uncensored-by-zachary-r-wood/9781524742447/

He is above and beyond the most famous current Williams student. Thought Ephs might find this interesting.

#5 Comment By anonymous On April 17, 2018 @ 11:39 am

But why do they want to bust a rare student? Or is ED dishonesty widespread?

#6 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On April 17, 2018 @ 12:07 pm

> But why do they want to bust a rare student?

All bureaucracies dislike it when people break their rules.

#7 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On April 17, 2018 @ 1:01 pm

> identity politics of the revanchist type

New motto for EphBlog?

Not that there is anything wrong with that!

#8 Comment By abl On April 17, 2018 @ 1:25 pm

anonymous —

Schools should be bound to the promises that they make. For a school that promises need-based finaid, it seems reasonable to expect that school to make a good faith effort to meet that promise for all admitted students, including for those who are locked in via ED. If a school is unable or unwilling to meet its promises, it should not expect its affected applicants to meet theirs — legally or morally. For example: if your child applied for the 2019 year but was offered a spot in 2020, I don’t think anyone would have any compunctions about “breaking” that ED commitment. Why is it any different in the context of need-based finaid?

If I’m misreading you and you’re arguing that ED candidates shouldn’t be shopping around reasonable finaid offers to look for something just a little bit better, I think I’d hesitantly agree (with some caveats along the lines of sigh’s post re the burden such a system places on lower-income applicants). There’s a difference between a parent being disgruntled at not receiving quite as much aid as she expected or hoped for, and a parent genuinely believing that the school did a poor job calculating need (and that other schools might do a materially better job).

If I’m not misreading you, I’m genuinely surprised by your attitude re finaid and ED. It sounds like (from other posts that you’ve made) you are pretty dissatisfied with the finaid package(s) that your kids were offered, and that you don’t believe that the school(s) in question really made a good faith effort to meet the demonstrated need of your children. There’s something profoundly unfair about your guidance counselor’s perspective that you should be stuck, in such circumstances, paying more than what you reasonably can just because your kids applied ED.

#9 Comment By anonymous On April 17, 2018 @ 2:05 pm

To the contrary, I knew that I would never see a dime of financial aid from SLACs and that was the case, so I wasn’t surprised. I’m simply frustrated that I fall into a niche where my income is too high for need-based aid, but retail is actually incredibly difficult for me to pay. There are many people out there with this problem and their kids often attend less prestigious schools who offer generous merit-aid and/or state flaship honors programs. There is an article about this in today’s WSJ.

Because I knew we’d never see any financial aid, ED made perfect sense for my kids. Kids like mine get snapped up in ED – full pay AND qualified! Let’s face it, schools fill up their ED spots with such kids. I’ve seen my kids’ friends equally qualified academically be denied ED due to great need. I suppose this is unfair, but such kids end up OK in RD it seems. ED does benefit the wealthy, but maybe also eventually helps to spread the wealth. The schools need to get tuition money from some people. The wealthy use ED to gain one of the rare advantages white elites still have, for better or worse.

#10 Comment By frank uible On April 17, 2018 @ 2:18 pm

In the wonderful world of antitrust, competitors exchanging information is from clearly to suspiciously criminal.

#11 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On April 17, 2018 @ 2:20 pm

I think that you are making too much of a connection between wealth and ED.

1) Applying ED (as best we can tell), helps all applicants, not just the rich ones. That is, a poor student who applies ED has an advantage over a poor student who applies RD.

2) Even in a world in which every student were rich, ED would still exist because college and applicants would like it. For colleges, it makes enrollment easier to manage and helps to identify students for whom their college really is their top choice. For students, it, sometimes, eases uncertainty.

3) Poor students (defined as those from families below $40,000 or so) are certain that Williams will give them a free ride, so there is no reason not to apply ED.

Yes, there are some cases in which upper class students (family income of $100,000 or so) might/should hesitate to apply ED because they give up some bargaining power. But I find it difficult to get worked up about that.

#12 Comment By ZSD On April 17, 2018 @ 2:30 pm

Put a dollar in my pocket to establish applicant-college confidentiality.

#13 Comment By anonymous On April 17, 2018 @ 2:31 pm

DDF: I used an expensive college admissions consultant. He would disagree with your take on ED. I don’t know the stats, but know for sure that if you don’t apply for financial aid, your chances at ED admission are much higher than if you do. I’ve seen it with my very own eyes with my kids’ friends. I think, however, that if they had been athletes or URMs it would have been a different story.

#14 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On April 17, 2018 @ 3:18 pm

if you don’t apply for financial aid, your chances at ED admission are much higher than if you do.

1) This depends a great deal on what sorts of schools you are talking about. Only a tiny percentage of all schools in the country are need-blind. For all other schools, you can be certain that wealth matters. But it is not obvious (to me) that, for those schools, wealth matters more during ED than in RD. Why would it?

2) For elite colleges like Williams that are truly (?) need-blind, it is a huge advantage to be very poor. That is, for two otherwise identical applicants (applying either ED or RD), the one who, say, qualifies or a Pell Grant will have a significant advantage over the one who does not. Elite colleges love poor applicants!

3) What about someone like you, far from qualifying for a Pell but perhaps needing/deserving some help? How does your child’s chances compare to someone who needs to no aid? At a place like Williams, it makes no difference.

#15 Comment By abl On April 17, 2018 @ 3:47 pm

anonymous –

The impact of finaid requests on ED admissions depends on the college. It shouldn’t matter at any need-blind institutions — and I think most schools that claim to be need-blind separate out these decisions such that finaid applications can’t negatively impact college admissions. To the best of my knowledge, Williams, at least when I was there, truly never disadvantaged applicants based on finaid requests. I am pretty confident that the top tier of LACs and universities that claim to be need-blind also truly are.

But your expensive admissions consultant is not alone in suspecting that this may not be true across the board–I’ve also heard this from other fairly reliable third parties (including expensive admissions consultants). I, personally, have never encountered a school falsely claiming to be need blind. And I would not be surprised if this rumor is entirely explained by confirmation bias — if I had a dollar for every person I’ve spoken with who made some unfounded and incorrect inference based on “but that student seemed to be similarly qualified, and (s)he did/didn’t get in!,” I’d be typing this from a much nicer apartment. That said, I would also not be surprised if there are some “need blind” schools that are not, truly, need blind (especially once you drop below the top ~10 LACs and the top ~20 universities). I do think there are some borderline shady practices in some of the elite second-tier striver-y schools, and there are definitely shady practices in the very deep pool of non-elite schools.

#16 Comment By abl On April 17, 2018 @ 4:05 pm

anonymous and DDF —

Then there is the separate question of whether schools are as generous with finaid for ED applicants as they are RD applicants. My sense is that Williams was, at least when I was there. I’m not sure, though, that every school is — which gives rise to the equity/class problem noted by sigh: if students feel unable to break their ED commitments for any reason, and if applying ED entails risking a materially worse aid package, students must sometimes choose between applying ED (and gaining the advantage that it confers) and minimizing their total COA. Not all students can afford to make this choice — and some (predominantly lower-income and middle class students) thus are systematically disadvantaged in the process to the extent that they feel unable to break their ED commitments in instances in which their need package fails to meet their need.

I am sorry you felt like your aid package would have been insufficient at any school. I’m not sure that’s actually true. At least at Williams and a number of other wealthy top-tier schools, finaid packages are sufficiently generous that there are very few people for whom tuition is a meaningful strain.* Unfortunately, there is a big drop-off in this respect. The academic difference between schools like Williams/Princeton and schools like Bates/Emory is fairly small — but the need-based aid provided, especially to middle class and upper-middle class households, can differ pretty substantially. Although I think there are relatively few families for whom Williams, after finaid, is borderline unaffordable, there is a large pool of families who would receive far more general need-based packages at the elite-est wealthiest schools than at the slightly less elite and slightly less wealthy second tier (or tier 1B) of schools.

These sorts of differences highlight the danger of ED policies that bind even those students who receive need-based packages that do not fulfill their needs: what it means to get need-based aid at Conn College can often be materially different from what it means to get need-based aid at Williams. It’s great that you could afford (however grumpily) to take the financial hit of not shopping packages and instead maximizing each of your child’s chance at the school of his or her choice (via ED). Not everyone can afford to do that.

*That said, I don’t think even schools like Williams and Princeton are totally nailing things in this respect — and that’s unfortunate, because both schools are easily wealthy enough that they can afford to design policies that ensure that tuition is not a strain on any student.

#17 Comment By JCD 📌 On April 17, 2018 @ 6:54 pm

The article in US News & World Report, cites the comments of Richard Nesbitt.

While students can’t be forced to attend any school they are accepted to via early decision, the consequences they will face, if any, when backing out of these agreements will depend on the school and the student’s situation, experts say.

Most colleges will release students from early decision offers without penalty if applicants receive a financial aid package that doesn’t make it feasible economically for the student to attend.

There may be other compelling reasons that would sway an admissions officer to release an accepted student from an early decision offer without consequence – a sick parent, for instance – admissions officers say.

Occasionally, students back out of early decision agreements without a good reason, says Richard Nesbitt, director of admission at Williams College in Massachusetts. “It would be a big ethical issue,” he says.

I can see why folks at the U.S. Justice Department are interpreting all of this as an anti-trust violation. The existing procedures have been tying down students – who supposedly only have one true dream school – and drastically limiting the competition over those students initially as they bargain for aid packages and now by raising the threats associated with breaking their commitments and causing, as Nesbitt believes, “a big ethical issue.”

All in all, I don’t see how early decision is really helping kids. I suspect that initially only a very small number of students came in through ED so it was not such a big deal in terms of limiting competition over applicants. Now, however, it looks like Williams and other colleges are simply using ED to game the system and reduce competition over qualified applicants.

The whole thought that they would pressure these kids and intimidate them by labeling them unethical really rubs me the wrong way. It doesn’t sound like the LACCs in this scheme are putting the best interests of their applicants first.

I think it is a little much to assume that any child has a good enough idea about their future and their potential choices to make a decision without having all the information in front of them or without an opportunity to play one school off another to get a better deal.

As always, this system seems rigged to harm the white working class the most. Notice this quote from Inside Higher Education.

Many admissions observers have criticized early decision over the years, primarily saying that it favors wealthier applicants who are more likely to have had a head start on college planning, and who may have the financial resources not to feel the need to compare aid offers.

What is sad to me is that it doesn’t look like there is anyone in the academic world who is looking out for that poor white child with a great work ethic and high test scores. If anything, that kid is being treated with disdain. So much for the “white privilege” narrative.

#18 Comment By anonymous On April 18, 2018 @ 9:27 am

JCD: I agree with everything you just said with the exception of poor white kids. Having recently lived through the college admissions process with two children, I witnessed great interest from colleges in a few “poor white kids” at our public high school. It’s that “first gen” thing. It’s a big deal. Elite colleges brag about how many first gen kids they accept. Anecdotally, the kids at our local high school got into much better schools than they would have if they had not been poor, IMHO. Whether or not they can succeed at these colleges remains to be seen. I’m predicting “mismatch” for the kids I know, unless there is tremendous social support for them at their respective schools – which is doubtful.