UVA is ending its longstanding practice of early-decision admisssions, a move intended to level the playing field for all qualified applicants and improve the economic diversity of its student body. Momentum has been building for some time to reform this aspect of the admission process, which officials say disproportionately benefits a group of applicants already considered advantaged. “This action is an effort to remove an identified barrier to qualified low-income students and their families who have long believed that top-tier universities were not within their reach,” said University President John T. Casteen III.

UVA’s announcement on Sept. 25 came less than two weeks after Harvard announced that it was eliminating its nonbinding early action program. Princeton followed suit days later.

Early decision, which gives high school seniors who apply in the fall a decision by mid-December, was instituted at UVA in 1961 and, for many years, attracted a very small pool of students. Since the 1990s, however, applications for early admission have mushroomed and account for about 30 percent of an incoming class.

But the policy has traditionally served a homogenous population: predominantly white students from affluent families enrolled in private high schools or well-regarded public schools. “Low-income students were not part of the process,” says Jack Blackburn, UVA’s dean of admission. Those who need to shop around for financial aid packages or scholarships shy away from early decision because it requires an applicant who is admitted to lock into a decision to attend before financial aid arrangements can be determined—usually in the spring.

Last year, fewer than 20 of the 947 students accepted under the early decision plan applied for financial aid. Of the more than 170 students who qualified for maximum financial aid, only one applied under the early decision plan; in 2004, none in that pool applied early decision.

Given such statistics, officials say that the policy ran counter to the University’s goal of making itself more accessible and affordable, a priority that led to the creation three years ago of AccessUVa, a new financial aid program.

“I think this is the right thing to do, especially for a public school with a responsibility for outreach,” says Blackburn. The move received unanimous support from the University’s deans and the Faculty Senate.

Blackburn doesn’t expect any change in the evaluation system that the Office of Admission uses, but one fallout of eliminating the program is that more offers of admission will have to be made to ensure the right class size. That may lower UVA’s standing in U.S. News & World Report’s college rankings, because a school’s offer rate—currently about 38 percent—is a factor in determining its selectivity.

Harvard’s action puts the prospect of ending early decision in the realm of the possible for other schools. “I think it’ll have a domino effect,” Blackburn says. “Lots of universities are considering it.”

UVA’s policy goes into effect for the class entering in 2008. January 2 will become the application deadline for all students.