The University of Virginia announced Monday that it will drop its early decision admissions process, becoming the third prominent university this month to cancel such a program.

The change will apply to those entering the university in the fall of 2008, and was made to level the playing field for low-income students, who rarely apply for early decision, said John T. Casteen III, the school president.

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Early admissions programs, which are common at many of the nation's universities, give high school seniors who apply in the fall a decision by mid-December — before regular admissions application deadlines.

In recent weeks, Harvard and then Princeton — both private universities — announced they would end their respective versions of early admissions. Harvard used nonbinding "early action," which still allowed prospective students to apply elsewhere in the spring. Princeton was among the colleges that have used binding "early decision," which requires applicants to attend if accepted.

Virginia has had an early decision program since the 1960s. Each year, early decision applicants make up about 30 percent of the class entering the Charlottesville school.

Critics of early admissions contend the programs undermine campus diversity because poor and minority students are less likely to use them. They also say the programs add pressure on high school seniors to pick a first-choice college before they're ready. But supporters say the programs reduce anxiety by giving applicants a way to finish the process early in the year.

The University of Delaware also dropped early decision this year, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill did the same in 2002, although it maintained a nonbinding early action program.