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DOJ investigates Swarthmore’s early decision admissions process

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According to a statement by Dean of Admissions Jim Bock ’90, Swarthmore received a letter from the Department of Justice requesting that it preserve documents related to Early Decision practices. A group of selective colleges and universities including Amherst, Bowdoin, Middlebury, and Tufts that accept applications through early decision also received the letter. The DOJ is investigating whether the data colleges share with each other during the early decision admissions process, such as the names of students admitted, violate US antitrust laws, according to the New York Times.

Swarthmore has received a letter from the U.S. Department of Justice requesting the preservation of documents about the early admission application process,” Bock wrote in an e-mail to The Phoenix. “We are taking the request very seriously and are fully cooperating with the government,” he added, but couldn’t comment further.

Bock did not comment on why the DOJ wants to investigate Early Decisions data sharing. The antitrust division of the DOJ enforces laws which promote competitive business practices. In 1991, the department investigated the Ivy League universities for collaborating with regard to financial aid offers made to students who were accepted by multiple schools, a practice which was designed to prevent schools from using financial aid funds to compete over the best students. DOJ officials argued that this practice denied students the right to compare prices among schools.

The DOJ’s concern about financial aid competition may apply to the current investigation. Institutions like Swarthmore have less of an incentive to offer robust financial aid packages to early decision applicants since the students have already decided to attend the institution. By ensuring that students apply to only one school, they eliminate competition between schools over prospective students.

The Dean of Amherst College said in 2016 that she shares a list of students accepted through the early decision process with a group of 30 other colleges that offer early decision admission. The list sharing is designed to prevent students from applying early decision to multiple colleges at the same time, violating the contract. US News reported that sharing this data is a generally accepted practice.

Colleges like Swarthmore that offer early decision as an option in the application process require that students apply only to one school and commit to the school should they be accepted. The early decision agreement students sign, however, is not legally binding, according to US News. Admissions departments may allow students out of these agreements for certain reasons such as inadequate financial aid package or sickness of a family member. However, if students apply to multiple schools early decision, they may jeopardize their acceptances to both places.

The schools received letters,  not subpoenas, so while there may be lawyers involved, the DOJ does not look like it will be taking the investigation to court any time soon, if at all. As a result of the 1991 investigation of Ivy League universities, the schools agreed to stop collaborating about financial aid offers. The current investigation could yield a similar result, with colleges agreeing not to share lists of the students they accept early decision. No matter the result, this investigation will only impact future applicants to the school, not current students.

141 students admitted under Early Decision I

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Following issues with the Common Application website, including not allowing students to log onto the website and not marking completed tasks as finished, the college extended the application deadlines for Regular Decision and Winter Early Decision from January 1 to January 15.

Swarthmore is part of a group of over 30 colleges, including Amherst College, Brown University and the University of Chicago, that have extended deadlines due to malfunctions with the Common Application, The malfunctions began over the summer after the Common Application updated to the Fourth Generation, which completely eliminates the option of students doing the application in print.

“The admissions office is carefully monitoring the challenges that high school seniors and school counselors are facing with the common application and supporting credential submissions,” wrote the Admissions Office on its website. “We understand their frustration and anxiety, and we stand ready to work with all prospective applicants, their families, and counselors should anyone be experiencing difficulties.”

Despite the problems with the Common Application, the Early Decision I applications have been processed, with 141 students out of 349 applicants to matriculate to the college in the fall. These students will make up 35 percent of the Class of 2018.

Currently, the Class of 2018 is 46 percent female and 54 percent male. In addition, they come from 25 different states, 7 percent are international students, and 12 percent are first-generation college students.

ED I applicants increase eight percent since last year

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The college received 343 applicants for this year’s Early Decision I deadline, which was November 15. Compared to the number of last year’s ED1 applicants, the College saw an eight percent increase. Swarthmore is not the only college that witnessed an increase; several other schools, including the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University and Northwestern University, also recorded various increases, ranging from less than one percent for Princeton to 14 percent for Northwestern. Each college’s increase occurred despite technical difficulties with this year’s Common Application.

The 343 applicants this year mark the second highest number of fall ED applicants.  The College’s record was two years ago, with 346 applicants.  The College also recorded its highest number of male applicants for ED1.

This year’s high amount was recorded despite the College’s recent media attention.  Vice President and Dean of Admission Jim Bock ’90 said it’s too early to predict if the recent press coverage will affect the overall number of applicants.

“We are still far away from our regular decision deadline, but for those choosing to make Swarthmore a first choice school, there seems to have been little impact.”

ED II, a binding application deadline in the winter, will help determine if these increases are just with the first deadline or will be consistent throughout applications for the Class of 2018.  The ED II deadline, as with the regular decision deadline, is January 1.  Students who applied ED I will hear their decision on December 15.  ED II applicants find out if they are accepted on February 15, compared to regular decision’s April 1 notification.

“The ED I pool is typically larger, and students tend to feel a bit more confident about their applications and their grades from 9th-11th grades, as we do not have senior grades,” Bock said.  “We will only have progress reports as of the deadline, and these students will have had a chance to submit all required testing.  Many students wait until the January 1 ED II deadline to allow them time to submit the required admission testing and to complete their first semester of senior year and to submit first semester grades.  In November, we only have progress reports or first quarter grades.  Also, those concerned about financial aid will often wait to apply for the second round, as it ‘forces’ these students to submit their other regular applications at the same time and it gives parents some extra time to fill out the required forms.”

The averaged acceptance rate for the college’s ED I and ED II applicants last year was 31 percent, with an overall acceptance rate of 14 percent.

Early Decision Applications Conclude for Class of 2017

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With the second round of early decision applications complete, admissions staff have sequestered themselves away as they work to finalize decisions.

Not every school provides a second Early Decision option, but the college continues to offer one in case a student misses visiting, testing, or interviewing opportunities before the first early decision deadline, said Dean of Admissions Jim Bock ’90.

The Admissions Office does not record separate statistics for fall and winter Early Decision applicants. “We report combined numbers for both fall and early decision as that is how guide books and surveys report them. It is easier and cleaner to add the numbers and report our combined early decision statistics for the sake of comparison,“ said Bock. Nevertheless, the numbers show that students are attracted to both options.

According to Bock, the college received approximately 540 early decision applicants this year, second only to last year’s 575 and only the third year in which the college has broken the 500 Early Decision applicant mark. Last year the College received 6,616 total applications, compared to a record 6,632 this year.

The students applying have not changed much either. “The pool remains competitive and strong on all measures,” said Bock. Admitted students highlighted finding kindred spirits as their motivation for applying early.

“I immediately connected with the student body,” said Emma Eppley, a senior at the College Preparatory School in Berkeley, CA, who was accepted early. Eppley fondly recalls a campus visit that involved hallway conversations on an eclectic range of topics, from technological advances over the past fifty years to DNA sequencing to Tolkien and Firefly.

Demographically, fewer women and more men applied early than in previous years, as did a record number of non-U.S. citizens. Geographically, there were fewer early decision applicants from the Midwest and the Mid-Atlantic. The college also saw a drop in early applicants from New York, a trend that may have resulted from Hurricane Sandy. “We worked with several students who needed extensions to submit transcripts, scores, and other support material due to school closings in early November,” said Bock.

Although he cannot comment on matriculation and admission statistics until decisions are mailed, Bock said, “We are excited by this year’s combined early pool.”

Early Decision A Week Away

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One week from today, several hundred high school students from across the globe who are set on Swarthmore will click “submit” on the Common Application. They will inaugurate this year’s admissions process at Swarthmore as the college’s first round of early decision applicants.

For those who have forgotten, Swarthmore College, like most small, selective, liberal arts colleges, offers two ways for potential students to apply: early decision or regular decision. Early decision is intended for students who feel that Swarthmore is their clear first choice. It binds a student to attend if admitted (barring financial reasons), but also statistically increases the likelihood that they will get in.

Jim Bock, the Dean of Admissions, explained that having early decision is helpful to both the college and to students. “We compete with some really great schools, and we want to give students the advantage of having a first choice. But, if they have that, we want them to commit to Swarthmore,” he said, adding that it gives the college a competitive advantage, especially considering that as an applicant pool, the students who apply early decision are often the strongest applicants the college receives. “Early decision works in the college’s favor,” Bock said. “It helps us build a class, and it’s one of our strongest pools.”

While the Admissions Office is not yet sure how many students will have submitted early applications by the end of next week, they expect it to be similar to what they typically get. “Hopefully, we’ll get several hundred, which is what we normally get,” Bock said.

Swarthmore, like most peer institutions, has two rounds of early decision. Students who want to be in the first, and larger pool must submit their application by November 15th, while those applying through winter early decision must apply by January 1st, along with regular decision applicants. Bock said that the reason the school has two rounds of early decision is because some people who have selected Swarthmore as their first choice may not feel ready or be able to apply by November 15th.

“It’s an access question,” he said. “Many students who might find us as a first choice college may or may not have the ability to get together an application by November 15th, or to put their best foot forward, so it is better to submit by January 1st.” There are students who use early decision two as a means of furthering their admissions odds after getting rejected from another school early decision one, something Bock says the office is aware of. But Bock says that does not affect the admissions calculus. “We have no way of knowing that,” he said.

Still, more November early decision applicants were admitted than those applying for the second round. “Typically, we take more than a third fall early decision applicants and roughly twenty percent of our winter early decision candidates,” said Bock. This compares to the approximately thirteen percent admitted regular decision for the class of 2016, which yielded an overall admit rate of fourteen percent. But Bock credits the difference in part to the relative strength of the applicant pools, especially when accounting for the the discrepancy between the fall and january early decision rates. “Our fall early decision pool is typically quantitatively stronger,” said Bock.  “There is no disadvantage to applying fall early or winter early. It’s just a different deadline,” he emphasized.

This year, as a result of Hurricane Sandy, many schools have pushed back their early decision deadline. Swarthmore, however, has opted not to. As Bock explained, most of the schools who have pushed back their early decision deadline originally had it on November 1st, not November 15th, which the admissions office felt gave students enough time without an extension. “I don’t want to encourage people not to meet the deadline,” Bock added. He did say, however, that the school would work on a case-by-case basis with students who are having difficulty meeting the deadline as a result of the storm.

Some schools, unlike Swarthmore, have early action applications in place of early decision. Early action, like early decision, allows students to get an early response from the college. But unlike early decision, it is nonbinding.

Patrick Trainor ’16, applied to college both early decision, to Swarthmore, and early action, to the University of Chicago. “Chicago and Swarthmore were my top two,” Trainor explained. I really wanted to know if I could get into Chicago, and I wanted to know right away if Swat didn’t work out.”

Trainor was admitted to both, an experience that he found, at first, frustrating. “I was upset because I had already made a decision,” he said. But eventually, he decided applying early decision was the right move. “After I rationalized a little bit, I realized I was happy with Swat, and I would have picked it over Chicago again.”

“I really want to know who is committed to Swarthmore early, so I make it a binding commitment,” said Bock, explaining why Swarthmore has early decision and not early action. “You’re finding out early, but it’s creating a lot of applications from folks who may not truly be interested.”

In addition, it is a size trend. “Most small schools have early decision. Most large schools have early action,” he said.

The early decision process attracts candidates with a variety of different extracurricular activities and skills. But athletic recruits are among the applicants who most frequently take advantage of Swarthmore’s early decision process. Adam Hertz, the director of athletics, estimated that roughly half of recruits apply early. “I’d say right now it’s an even split,” he said.

Bock agreed, although he added that it “depends on the year.” He cited coaches as the reason that recruits are more likely than others to apply early. “They have an advocate in the system,” he said.

Hertz said that, provided a student has decided that Swarthmore is their first choice, the athletic department might encourage them to apply early. “We let them know the early decision option might be something they want to consider.”

But he added that they did not put pressure on those students who did not know where they wanted to go. “I don’t think we want to put pressure on anybody who hasn’t decided they want to be here.”

Regardless of being recruited, Hertz added, athletes applying to Swarthmore do it for more than sports-related reasons. “Students want to come to Swarthmore because of its academic reputation and their intellectual curiosity.”

Bock agreed, and felt that is true for all applicants. “Most people don’t apply to Swarthmore on a whim, and I think that’s doubly true with early decision.”

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