A few minutes into Jeb Koogler's visit to Brown University, he knew it was the school for him. He loved the students' intellectual curiosity, the freedom to choose classes, even...

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A few minutes into Jeb Koogler’s visit to Brown University, he knew it was the school for him. He loved the students’ intellectual curiosity, the freedom to choose classes, even the vegetarian burgers in the cafeteria. So in late October, Koogler sent Brown the admissions equivalent of a marriage proposal:

If the Providence, R.I., school accepted him early, he pledged to enroll there and not apply to any other schools.

Koogler, a senior at The Northwest School, is one of about 160,000 high-school seniors who do the early-admissions dance each fall, which wraps up this week as hundreds of colleges and universities accept a bloc of students just as most of their classmates finish their applications.

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But there are signs that the early-admissions trend, which grew rapidly in the 1990s, is slowing down, at least in some regions. And some hope that means parents and students are cooling on a program that they worry isn’t always in students’ best interests.

For the past two school years, a rising number of colleges have reported a drop in early applicants, according to new data from the National Association for College Admission Counseling. For schools like Brown that offer binding early-decision programs, 45 percent reported a decline, compared with 24 percent the year before.

THOMAS JAMES HURST / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Early-decision programs are meant for students like Jeb Koogler, who visited several schools before he fell in love with Brown. Early-decision gave him the chance to show the depth of his interest.

The same pattern holds for a similar, nonbinding program called early action, in which colleges accept students in December or January, but don’t expect them to commit until May. (Think serious dating rather than a marriage proposal.)

No one knows the reasons for the change. Early-admission programs still offer students a better, or at least slightly better, chance of getting in. And it doesn’t look like there’s been a drop at schools at the center of the trend: the most selective, Ivy League schools.

And the number of students who applied under early-decision programs last school year is up, too. Last year, the total was 78,847, up from 70,186 the year before, according to the College Board.

Many Northwest colleges and universities report continued growth in early applicants, too. At Gonzaga University, for example, early-action applicants grew 12 percent last fall and roughly another 7 percent this year, said Julie McCulloh, dean of admission.

At the University of Puget Sound, early-decision students are up slightly, and there was a 20 percent rise in students simply turning in their regular applications earlier, said George Mills, vice president for enrollment.

“I think students know they need to apply early so they know what some of their options are,” McCulloh said.

In area high schools, some counselors report a jump in interest, too, or at least the same amount as in the past few years. At The Northwest School, counselor Linda Jacobs says she’s busier with early applications than ever before. At Edmonds-Woodway High School, encouraged by teachers to consider early admissions, 20 of the 32 students in the school’s rigorous International Baccalaureate program chose to do so.

The colleges reporting declines are concentrated in the Midwest and among less-selective schools, some of which use early admissions as an aggressive marketing tool, said David Hawkins, director of public policy for the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Still, the group’s data show that the early admissions landscape is changing, Hawkins said. The numbers are from a survey that will be published in full early next year.

Early-decision programs are meant for students like Koogler, who visited several schools before he fell in love with Brown. Early-decision gave him the chance to show the depth of his interest. (The only way a student can back out once accepted is to argue that the school didn’t provide enough financial aid.)

But college counselors say few students are ready for that kind of commitment.

“We typically … I wouldn’t say discourage, but we ask students to think very carefully before they decide to submit an early-decision application,” says Joan Rynearson, founder of College Advisory Service on Bainbridge Island.

The motivation for applying early is to increase one’s odds of acceptance. But counselors say that shouldn’t be the only reason for doing it.

“The thing we really hate is the student who says, ‘I don’t know where, but I want to apply early,’ ” said Bruce Bailey, director of college counseling at Lakeside, a private school in North Seattle. “That’s completely the wrong way to go about it.”

For years, critics have charged that early-decision programs benefit schools more than students. They say such programs put low-income students at a disadvantage because students must commit before they know how much financial aid they will receive, and before they can compare what other institutions might offer. They worry that students rush to commit, then regret it later.

They also think the programs benefit colleges and universities in their competition to net the best prospects or to burnish their prestige as sought-after places.

Many counselors, however, encourage students to consider early-action programs, early-decision’s less demanding cousin. In those programs, colleges accept a group of students early, but don’t require the students to commit until the regular deadline of May 1. Counselors see little downside for students and a big psychological boost in getting an early-acceptance letter.

“It’s everyone’s fear that they won’t get in anywhere,” said Emma McHugh, a senior at Holy Names, a Catholic girls school in Seattle. “It’s an irrational fear, but everyone still worries.”

She’s already received acceptance letters from Purdue and Penn State. They don’t have early-admissions programs per se, but Purdue strongly recommends that students apply in September or October.

Jim Rawlins, an admissions official at the University of Washington, said he personally would oppose early-admissions programs at the UW.

“I would fight it tooth and nail,” he said. “I think we should give students their senior year to make up their minds and don’t rush them any more than we do.”

The early-admissions trend has always been more prevalent in the East than the West, counselors say.

“I just think the anxiety level among families is higher in the East,” said Judy Mackenzie, an independent counselor in the Seattle area who says that about a third of her clients apply early.

And East or West, early applicants are more prevalent in private schools. At Lakeside, for example, about 45 percent of the senior class applied early this year, about the same as it has been for several years, Bailey said.

At Holy Names, counselor Alice Tanaka said roughly 40 percent applied early, although half were students who did so simply to be considered for merit-based scholarships, another wrinkle in the admissions process. But at Mercer Island High School, where Tanaka worked for 11 years, early numbers have been lower — about 10-15 percent.

This week, most colleges announce their early decisions, and students will celebrate or get back to work on more applications.

Koogler checked his status at Brown on the university’s Web site a few days ago. The news was good: He’s in. He says he feels elated — and lucky. And also relieved not to have more college essays hanging over his head.

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com