THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The College Insider: Admissions Freak Out Countdown #3: The Squeeze Play - Early Decision, Budget Cuts, And No Vacancy Signs

Early decision: A senior applies to a pie-in-the-sky school in November and gets an answer before Christmas, while everyone else is still filing applications. "Yes" means that the second half senior year will be more fun than the pervasive nervous breakdown. "No," or a deferral, means joining the rest of the class in the purgatory known as waiting for regular admissions notices in the spring. Or for wait-lists after that. Hanging on until April is hard enough, but with the common app encouraging students to apply to more schools that ever before, those schools are having a terrible time guesstimating how many of their applicants will actually show up. They hedge their bets; they put so many kids on wait lists that there's essentially a second round of acceptances in early summer.

Anyone in their right mind would want to avoid that kind of cliffhanger, which explains the enduring appeal of early apps - but as power struggles go, this one favors the schools. If you get accepted you have to attend, which does wonders for a school's yield, the percentage of applicants who choose to attend. Early action is slightly kinder to the applicant, because it allows a senior to apply to other schools and delay a decision until the spring, but c'mon: A first choice can afford to be generous because it's a first choice, and if a kid is waffly enough to change his or her mind, well, who wants kids who don't know what they want?

Decision or action, the allure is obvious to anyone who can manage simple math (and if you can't, perhaps early is not for you): Early applicants take up as much as 25 percent of an incoming class. If you're the kind of person who buys movie tickets on-line so you can choose the best seat, you know that the later it gets, the fewer options you have. But high stakes are high stakes. Traditionally, public universities are part of the safety-net scenario; Star students across the country can always find a welcome home within their state system, which is there, after all, to educate state residents.

Not so much, these days. Fees at private schools seem immune to the economy, but public institutions of higher learning are definitely feeling the pinch. The headline consequence of the recession is higher state fees and accompanying protests. The stealth side effect is going to be fewer acceptances. In the old days of fully-staffed newspapers and a healthy economy, there was a story every spring about Berkeley turning down California high-school valedictorians. In the new order, even UC campuses with less marquee value are going to start channeling Nancy Reagan and just say no.

The standard narrative - I bet the house on Harvard because I can always go to UCLA, or Michigan, or whatever my state school is - isn't the lock it used to be, and the next fall back position doesn't look so healthy anymore, either. Community college applications have been on the rise, but they, too, have been hamstrung by funding cuts, and it looks like they're going to embrace the same less-is-more approach as their four-year relatives.

Scared yet? Let's channel the lesson of Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach, about seeing things in a new way, and reconsider regular admissions. Maybe it's not the consolation prize for the slightly less than fabulous; maybe it's a smarter place to be. Early-decision skews toward the illustrious, so a terrific student with the occasional B, or a test score below 700, might not show to advantage. Put that same kid in the regular-decision pool and suddenly he or she looks like a star. Goldfish among the earlies; orca among the regulars. And regular applicants can comparison shop their financial-aid offers, while earlies pretty much have to take what they get.

Besides, educators are starting to wonder if decisions made at the beginning of senior year are as satisfying as decisions made six months later, and the answer seems to be, maybe not.

The long good-bye starts to sound better and better - but if you're determined to get this out of the way before the holidays, how about looking for a school you like that's less of a leap? There have to be at least three of them out there. Maybe more. You still have a couple of weeks to find one.

Next: Admissions Freak-out Countdown #4: Financial Aid, Price Resistance, and Fiscal Nudity.

Visit www.karenstabiner.com or write to Karen at kstabiner@gmail.com.

Subscribe to the Lifestyle email.
Life hacks and juicy stories to get you through the week.