In a Head Count post on Tuesday, my colleague Beckie Supiano described the University of San Diego’s decision to end its early-action program. The news was striking because many colleges have moved in the other direction, by adopting one or more early deadlines or by enrolling increasingly larger proportions of their classes through the early-admission door.
San Diego’s move also suggested a larger theme: Success often comes with a catch. On many campuses, application surges—and all the good news they seem to imply—have created significant challenges for admissions officers. In a blog post on Wednesday, Stephen Pultz, San Diego’s assistant vice president for enrollment management, offered a frank appraisal of those challenges.
Mr. Pultz began by quoting “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” the classic Rolling Stones tune (“You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need”). To build a class is to balance needs and wants, a task that’s become even trickier in this era of high-volume applications. “With all of these factors fueling the application growth,” Mr. Pultz wrote, “it is more and more difficult for us to decide who to admit and how many to admit in order to arrive at the ‘right’ number and mix of students that we would like.”
At San Diego, applications increased 20 percent over the last year. Early applications have increased by more than 52 percent since 2010. More students applying early meant reviewing more applications in the fall, deferring more students, and making more students wait until March to get their financial-aid packages. While trying to win over those early admits, there were more regular-decision applications to read. And, if you take Mr. Pultz’s meaning, this meant more headaches for everyone involved.
All of this sounds familiar to Louis L. Hirsh, who long served as the University of Delaware’s director of admissions before retiring this past spring. In 2006 Delaware dropped its binding early-decision program and moved to a single deadline. At the time, Mr. Hirsh said he worried that early-decision programs disproportionately benefited wealthier applicants, and pressured high-school students to make decisions before they were ready.
As the early-decision program grew in popularity, it also raised logistical concerns for his staff. “Yes, it was very comforting to have several hundred deposits in our pocket early, but we were compressing a lot of decisions into a short time frame,” Mr. Hirsh recalled on Wednesday. “The issue I raised to my colleagues was, How do we responsibly get through so many applications by mid-December?”
The first fall after the switch, Mr. Hirsh felt relief. “There was something nice about reviewing all your applications on the same playing field,” he said. “We used to spend all this time guessing, Where would this kid stand in our regular pool?”
Similar concerns prompted San Diego’s admissions staff to move to a single deadline—a calendrical compromise between the two old deadlines. “The result was that while we may not be able to get what we want,” Mr. Pultz wrote, “we found a way to get what we need.”
It’s not every day that an admissions official cites Jagger and Richards. Then again, it’s not every day that a college official distinguishes between wants and needs.