Will UF end its early decision program?


Published: Tuesday, January 30, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 29, 2007 at 10:16 p.m.

As the University of Florida works to rub elbows with some of the nation's elite universities, admissions officials are considering the future of a controversial admissions policy that three of the country's leading schools have nixed in the past year.

Harvard University, Princeton University and the University of Virginia all dropped their early admissions programs last year, citing concerns that the practice slights lower-income students. But UF, like a number of other well-respected institutions, has kept its program in place.

Zina Evans, UF's director of admissions and assistant provost, says her office is in the process of reviewing whether an early admissions program should continue at UF.

"We're at the early stages of looking at how early decision fits into the enrollment plan," she said.

Similar to many other schools, UF's "early decision" program encourages students to apply early if UF is their top choice. On the upside, students admitted through this practice can skip some of the stress of the application season by knowing where they're headed to college before many of their classmates have even started applying. The catch, however, is that going through the early decision process dramatically limits students' options, contractually binding them to come to UF if they're admitted.

For students from low-income families, for whom financial aid options are a chief concern, early decision is often too large a gamble. Without knowing what sort of aid they can count on, low-income students are sometimes loath to take this road.

UF President Bernie Machen has publicly touted efforts to lure more low-income students, giving momentum to a new statewide program that offers scholarships to first-generation college students whose family income is less than $40,000. The early decision option, however, is seemingly at cross purposes with the goal of recruiting these types of students.

"The student who is applying early decision has a lot more resources," said Evans, who took over as head of admissions at UF in August. "They have a sense of what the (application) process is. A first-generation student may not have those same resources. That is one of the groups you're less likely to see."

Yet, early decision has its supporters among students and administrators. From a student perspective, the process can save money by limiting applications and relieve stress by allowing for an early response. There's also a perception — however unwarranted, according to UF officials — that students who pledge their unwavering love to UF have an advantage in the admissions process.

For admissions officials, early decision has its own set of benefits. Perhaps most significantly, it allows the university to spread out the admissions process over a longer period of time so the office isn't flooded all at once with a throng of applications. Early decision applications have to get to UF by Oct. 1, while other students can wait until Jan. 16 to apply for the second round of regular decisions.

The early decision program also has another notable advantage for admissions officials, allowing them to admit some of the best and brightest applicants with little fear that they'll be lured to another school with a better counter offer.

Early decision applicants have an extremely high "yield rate," meaning the vast majority who apply will actually come to UF. That allows the university to better manage enrollment numbers, knowing that about 40 percent of the class will be virtually locked in early in the process.

"Does it help? Absolutely," Evans said. "But there's still 60 percent of the pool that's at play."

It's not just low-income students that some fear are left out of the early decision pool. There's also concern that minorities are slighted in the process as well because they appear underrepresented in the pool. Conscious of this, UF has stepped up its efforts to recruit in counties with high black and Latino populations, encouraging some minorities from these areas to take the early decision route if they so desire.

One of UF's key outreach programs is called the Outstanding High School Scholars program. Data provided to The Sun by UF's admissions office suggests that the bulk of black applicants who applied through early decision this year came from schools that participated in the program. Of the 448 black applicants for early decision, 296, or 66 percent, participated in the Outstanding High School Scholars program.

Evans assures that black students aren't being pressured to apply through early decision, but they are being told "you need to apply, and you need to apply as early as you're comfortable."

When Harvard announced in September that it would end early admissions, many thought similar programs would quickly be phased out across the country. Thus far, that hasn't happened, and Evans said that whatever decision UF makes won't be made because of Harvard.

"The conversations are beginning thinking about who we are," she said, "not who Harvard is, not who Princeton is."

Jack Stripling can be reached at 374-5064 or Jack.Stripling@gvillesun. com.

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