Competition among America's elite institutions for the best students has taken another twist with last week's announcements by Stanford and Yale universities that they will drop their early admissions policy from next year.
The so-called early-decision system allows students in their penultimate year of high school to apply to one university on the basis of their performance before sitting the scholastic aptitude test. If they are accepted, however, they are obliged to enrol.
About 400 universities operate the scheme, which allows universities to plan and saves them having to fend off competing schools' offers and counter-offers of financial aid and other enticements.
Record numbers of students have applied early rather than wait until spring to hear which school will admit them.
Students know that the odds of being accepted are much higher for applicants in the autumn. Yale took 37 per cent of its early applicants in 2000, compared with 16 per cent of those who applied through the traditional process. Stanford admitted 24 per cent of early applicants, compared with 14 per cent of regular applicants.
But Yale president Richard Levin said the system pushed students to choose a university before they were ready. "Early-decision programmes help colleges more than applicants. It is our hope to take pressure off students in the early cycle and restore a measure of reasoned choice."
The change was approved by a committee of faculty and administrators and endorsed by Yale's undergraduate student government.
Stanford president John Hennessy said: "We have been deeply concerned about the tremendous pressures that talented young people face as they apply to colleges like Stanford. This new policy offers those who have set their hearts on attending Stanford the opportunity to apply early in their senior year, without the additional pressure of having to commit before they are ready."
Yale and Stanford said it was a coincidence that both had announced their decisions at the same time. They had waited until the November 1 early admission decision had passed.
Other universities, including Princeton, Brown and Pennsylvania, are sticking by early admission, as is Harvard, which suggested in June that it might drop out but then revised its view under pressure from rival universities.