Until this fall, students hoping to attend the University of North Carolina could take advantage of an open secret to successful college admissions: Applying early was largely seen as a way to sneak in before having to compete with the hordes of applicants who send essays and references in the spring.
In what many saw as a major gamble, UNC last year became the first prominent institution to announce it was dumping its "binding early decision" program - which legally bound early applicants to attend if they were accepted. Officials said the practice contributed to an admissions "frenzy" that favored wealthy white kids.
Early admissions has been a topic of discussion in higher-education circles for a number of years, and experts say that announcements from two elite schools last week suggest that a monumental shift is on the way.
Following their Nov. 1 deadline for early applications, both Yale University on the East Coast and Stanford University on the West Coast said that they, too, were ending their binding early-decision programs.
The decisions could make the system more egalitarian and temper the mania over who gets to go to which school.
"It's a very brave first step," says Seppy Basili, coauthor of "The Unofficial, Unbiased, Insider's Guide to the 320 Most Interesting Colleges." "The pressure now will be tremendous on Princeton and Brown, with Duke, Dartmouth, Columbia, and Penn also feeling tremendous pressure to follow suit."
Some students who'd had their hearts set on Yale or Stanford say that early-decision programs made sense - and gave them a slight advantage over those who applied in the last semester of their senior year.
But the programs also caused havoc for families who weren't sure they could afford their child's top choice. The result: By and large, it was the savviest, most financially secure students who applied early. Students who needed financial aid often waited for the regular admissions deadlines so they would have a chance to explore the aid packages at various schools.
Like many schools, UNC had been experimenting for over 20 years with the power of early admissions to attract applicants - ever since the baby boomers started graduating from college and leaving classrooms empty. But today, the "baby boomlets" are crushing into colleges, creating one of the most competitive admissions scenarios the country has ever seen.
The most recent program at UNC came into effect only four years ago, and attempted to address the major concerns about early-decision policies that were by then circulating in the admissions community. That program limited the total early enrollment to 20 percent of acceptances, made it easier for students to get out of the agreement for financial reasons, and ensured that admissions standards were the same for both early and regular applicants.
But last year, UNC admissions officials admitted that, overall, their pool of early applicants was not as qualified as the regular pool. That could mean only one thing: Students were using early admissions as a strategy to apply to "reach schools."
In addition, 82 percent of early applicants were upper-class whites, while only 62 percent of the regular applicant pool fit that description, says Jerry Lucido, the admissions director at UNC.
"We can certainly defend having an early-decision program, but, in the end, it's not helping us get a more talented, more diverse student body, and in the process we are contributing to a national frenzy about how to play the admissions game," Mr. Lucido says.
For colleges, the advantage of a binding early decision program is that it allows them to maximize "yield" - the percentage of accepted applicants who actually end up attending the school. At the same time, it helps round out the next freshman class seven months in advance, making for a less pressed admissions office come springtime.
Some counselors even call binding early decision the "purest" form of admissions - since it matches schools up with the students who have already made up their minds about where they want to attend.
But a growing number of admissions counselors say it has become increasingly difficult for less wealthy students or those who are undecided to get in on the action, especially at schools that outwardly say everybody gets a fair chance but privately acknowledge that early admissions applicants can be as much as twice as likely to be admitted.
Those who tend to be most often left out are smart students from less college-savvy high schools, particularly in urban areas, where guidance counselors may be handling up to 500 students, and where the idea of hiring an "admissions coach" may sound surreal.
"We just felt like we didn't want to have something out there that created stress among students, that might be perceived as favoring certain audiences," says Ali Gauch, associate dean for admissions at Mary Washington College in Virginia, which also dropped its program last year.
At Stanford, last week's announcement came after much head scratching by admissions staff, says Robin Mamlet, dean of admissions.
The more frenetic the application process has become, the more difficult it's been to ensure that all students have a fair chance at admission, she says.
"I think early decision works when it's used by students who know what they're doing and by colleges that exercise it moderately," says Ms. Mamlet. "But what was happening was that families felt absolutely pressured because they thought that [binding early decision] was the only way to maximize their chances."
At the same time, Mamlet says, there was growing concern among applicants that colleges were double dealing - telling high school seniors one thing and doing another behind closed doors.
"We are asking students to be self-revelatory, to share with us honestly and candidly who they are," she says. "But then we'd have them think we were strategizing in a way that would not be in their best interest. That's why I felt we needed to do something."
Indeed, such fears among students are not just paranoia, experts say. Some schools advertise that students have a better chance if they apply early.
"At my orientation last year, they openly told us that early applicants have a 1-in-3 chance of getting in, while regular applicants have about a 1-in-6 chance," says Bradley Cantrell, a Duke University freshman from Greenville, S.C. He decided to apply early to the elite school in Durham, N.C., but was not accepted until his application went into the regular admissions pool. Duke is one of the schools that many say will now be among those feeling pressure to change their early admissions policies.
Many observers applaud the recent moves by Yale and Stanford, but say that in the short term they will create even more confusion for next year's crop of college applicants.
Yale, for example, dropped the "binding" part of its early-decision process, but it will still take "early action" applications, provided that students show their commitment to Yale by not applying early to any other schools.
Restricting students' choices in that way goes against the advice of the National Association of College Admission Counselors (NACAC) in Washington.
"It's unfortunate we can't come to a universal agreement on this," says Marybeth Kravets, past president of NACAC and a guidance counselor at Deerfield High School just outside Chicago. "Counselors wish all this early stuff would just go away, and just give kids the time to deal with their senior year, do their research, and apply to schools without having to read all the fine print."
Mr. Cantrell agrees. "Having to deal with the early decision thing is a nightmare," he says. "They said it would enhance my chances, but all it did was stress me out."