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Rethinking early decision

Maybe through ignorance, maybe through greed, maybe through lack of courage, Duke retains a policy in its undergraduate admissions that perpetuates economic inequity and exacerbates the tendency of the University to be a playground for the well-to-do. The policy should be familiar to most of you--about a third of the undergraduate student body took advantage of it. The policy is admission through early decision. Through this process, the applicants submit their applications several months before the regular deadline and receive a decision several months early as well. Early decision applicants have an increased chance of admission, because they make a commitment that, should they be admitted, they will withdraw their applications to other schools and matriculate at Duke.

The problem doesn't lie with the early decision process itself, which offers several advantages to both the school and the student, but with the fact that application by early decision requires the student to commit to Duke before financial aid packages are awarded, which occurs at the same time that regular decision students are admitted. Thus, the University automatically fills a third of each incoming class with students who can make college decisions without financial aid information. For many prospective students, including myself, that kind of financial commitment is simply impossible.

This policy is a force that drives the economic equilibrium of the student body toward the rich, and increases homogeneity in the socioeconomic backgrounds represented in each class. As this policy decreases a type of diversity that cannot be measured in melanin density, the administration has been content to ignore this homogenizing dynamic and follow the crowd of the peer institutions who fill their classes with early applicants. If Duke is serious about its commitment to diversity, and not just to its appearance, it will correct this imbalance.

Both admissions and financial aid do perform difficult jobs extremely well. Between them, they have made possible an education that I could not have otherwise aspired to. Their choice to give preference to early decision candidates, though, is one that runs contrary to the goals that each department professes: to fill each incoming class with excellent students from a broad spectrum of backgrounds and to make a Duke education possible for all deserving students, regardless of their economic situation. This inconsistency harms the credibility of our admissions process.

There are several possible solutions to this problem. One of the easiest is to follow the lead of several programs around the country and eliminate the early decision option. While this approach does away with the inherent economic bias and allow all students to be evaluated equally, it also removes the chance for prospective students to commit to Duke and to be rewarded for that commitment with both increased chances of admission and increased certainty about their college plans.

Another possible solution, one implemented by Princeton, is to guarantee that all demonstrated financial need will be met with grants, rather than the current combination of grants and loans. This way, students in all economic situations could make use of the early decision process and have confidence that their finances would not interfere.

Obviously, this requires a significant increase in the amount of money that financial aid would provide. Duke's endowment is not as large as Princeton's, so this policy would require a serious commitment to eliminating the economic stress of an elite education and possibly involve sacrifices the University is not willing to make. Whether we can afford to take this step or not, the current policy must be changed.

Perhaps it is in the best interest of the Annual Fund to admit rich students preferentially, but it is not ultimately the best for the University. If we wish to build an excellent student body, we cannot afford to place excellent students from poorer backgrounds at a disadvantage in our admissions process.

The administration is very vocal about its commitment to diversity, but tends to focus on those types that make good photographs for our viewbook, and ignore types that might hurt our pocketbook. To fulfill our commitment to excellence and to truly increase diversity, the admissions process must be fair. Therefore, the current early decision policy is unacceptable.

Russell Williams is a Pratt junior. His column appears every third Wednesday.

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