The Columbia 'Early Decision' Round

Some years ago a number of elite undergraduate schools instituted what were called "early decision" rounds. The sales pitch was, "If you're madly in love with this one school, we'll allow you to apply early. If we admit you, you agree to commit to our institution, withdraw your applications from other schools and pay a substantial non-refundable deposit."

On the surface, Early Decision seemed to allow students with an overwhelming affinity for a particular school to express their desire to attend it over all others. But there was more to the story than that. It soon became clear that schools were using Early Decision to nab strong students before they could get offers from competing universities and then lock those students in, so as not to lose them.

Business Schools Join In

Soon, a few MBA programs followed suit, Columbia being the most noticeable. At first, the lock-in deposit at CBS was modest (maybe $500), and I didn't mind when my students had to surrender the fee because they had been admitted to Harvard or Stanford or Wharton and had chosen to attend one of those programs. Now the fee is $6,000 and it pisses me off that too often CBS is forcing my students to give it up. It's time for that behavior to stop.

It was the non-refundable deposit and the promise to withdraw other applications that made no sense. After all, if applicants truly wanted to attend a specific university, why would the school need to compel them to put down deposit and withdraw other applications? 

The Trend

Early Decision was a lock-in technique that allowed schools to selfishly nab the best students while denying those applicants a chance to hear offers from other schools. It was good for the schools but terrible for the students. Soon the media stories started, and the schools quickly retreated.

Almost all universities have ended their lock-in programs. Undergraduate schools ended it immediately after a wave of bad press, and the few MBA schools that had started lock-ins did the same. But Columbia didn't. The MBA school that most aggressively exploited its lock-in program is virtually the only one that still uses it.

The Justification

The (false) justification given for Early Decision programs was that they allowed students to express their desire to attend the one school they were madly in love with. The problem was that students figured out that it was easier to be admitted if they applied in the Early Decision round (a fact that my personal experience with CBS seemed to confirm), so they applied early wherever they could. There was no element of true love; it was just a way to increase the odds at a very good school.

In the end, the schools were lying to students about the purpose of Early Decision programs, and the students were lying to schools about their desire to attend. Each side was scamming the other, but only the students were being harmed. If they were admitted to an Early Decision school, they didn't get a chance to see whether another program would have accepted them, or whether another school would have offered a better financial aid package. Or they lost their deposit.

Now Columbia stands almost alone among top business schools in retaining its Early Decision program. (I can think of two others, but their "Early Admit" conditions are less punitive and, frankly, they aren't as prestigious as Columbia.)

Don't Be Chickenshit

If you truly believe — as I do — that CBS is one of the world's most elite academic institutions, compete fairly for students and treat applicants with respect. Stealing $6,000 from hardworking 25-year-olds is a crime and an act unworthy of a great university. You can compete heads up with virtually any business school on earth; do so. Stop using the Early Decision lock-in technique and allow students to weigh all offers they might receive.

A Personal Note to CBS Dean Glenn Hubbard

You're very rich, and the students who apply to CBS are sometimes very poor. In the MBA admissions transaction, you hold all the power and the applicants hold none. That's why strong-arming them for $6,000 is so unseemly.

More broadly, this is typical of how those of us out here in the working world see rich, privileged people like yourself. They exploit us because they can. CBS is just another example of that. As applicants, we're so desperate to attend a university that could change our lives that we take a chance on a school that isn't our first choice and apply early in order to improve our odds.

Then, should we be lucky enough to be admitted, the school actually turns on us and places its interests ahead of ours, simply because it has the power to do so. Is that the kind of leadership that we should emulate in our careers? Are the incentives at CBS the kind that we should create in our companies? Should we use the power we have over vulnerable consumers to exploit them for the good of the institutions we lead?

A few years ago, I stopped recommending to my students that they apply to CBS in the Early Decision round. That happened after you took $6,000 from a few who were later admitted to Harvard and Stanford. That was the last straw for me. Those particular students were not rich, and giving up that much money wasn't easy. They recently graduated from business school, and I'll bet they could have used that $6,000 to put down on a car or to get married or to take their kids on vacation. They can't do that, however, because you took their money for a school they didn't attend. That's not right.

The other MBA programs that jumped on this misguided bandwagon gave up their Early Decision programs long ago. It's time for Columbia to do the same. Let's end it, Glenn.