Early Decision: Whose Interests Are Being Served?

What is Early Decision?

Early admission programs are not all the same. Variations such as early decision and early action confuse students and parents alike. Students seeking early decision generally apply in November and receive an answer within a month. Under this scenario, applicants submit only one application to one school. Acceptance by the college is binding. Binding typically means applicants promise they will attend the school if their application is accepted. Schools expect admitted students to honor their pledge. Colleges share their early decision lists of admitted students and follow the practice of eliminating them from further consideration. If a student does not honor an early decision, it is unlikely competitive schools will accept the student. This differs from early action where a student is accepted by mid-December but is not bound to acceptance to the school. Unlike early decision, there is no penalty for not attending the college that has admitted the student. This article focuses mainly on binding early decision programs.

Early Decision: Student Readiness and Family Income as Determinants

Some students and parents think early decision applicants have a better chance of getting into some of the most selective colleges. This notion is controversial and not everyone agrees. Part of the perception about early decision evolves from the small number of schools that use early decision. Approximately 400, or three percent, of colleges offering four-year degrees have early decision programs. These schools are concentrated in the Ivy League and very selective and expensive private colleges. Since early decision often applies to a group of schools that tend to be ranked among the “best” schools by U.S. News & World Report, the connection between early decision and elite schools may be enough for many people to see it as an advantage.

A November 5, 2011 article in the The Huffington Post offers some of the advantages and disadvantages to students of early decision. Among the advantages are: they just want to get the college application process completed so they can enjoy the second semester of their senior year; early decision may afford priority housing preference for incoming freshmen; and early decision demonstrates commitment to a school and may facilitate acceptance of a student who may be a borderline candidate.

Some of the disadvantages of early decision to a student are: they think they know their major, but realize later in the year that their goals may have changed; a student may simply change his or her mind about where they would like to attend college (for example an urban school may have seemed like the right thing to do until a student visits a small, liberal arts college in a rural setting); and the possibility of financial aid may be impacted because a college that knows you are committed to their institution may not give a student as much money compared to a situation where the school is trying to attract the student.

Christopher Avery and several others have studied and documented some of the early decision process in their book The Early Admissions Game, Joining the Elite. (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2003) Colleges that use early decision usually argue it is not an advantage for admission. However, Avery’s research indicates that applying early decision does, in fact, increase an applicant’s chances by as much as a 100 point increase in their combined SAT score. For some students, that doubles or even triples the chance of admission. Even vocal proponents of the fairness of early decision, like Princeton, admit two to three times as many applicants under early as opposed to regular admissions.

Students and parents would do well to remember that early admission implies decision-making for both the student and the institution. Completing the process early is more appropriate for some students than others. Early admission can be revoked if a student’s GPA drops precipitously, so an early decision is not a free pass to coast through the rest of senior year.

A major disadvantage for some students, states the Chronicle for Higher Education, is that, “A common criticism of early decision programs is that they hurt students from low-income families, who often decide to forgo early applications so they can compare financial-aid offers from multiple institutions during the regular admissions process.” The fact is that early decision programs limit choices for any family in need of financial aid. This inevitably widens the gap between the privileged and the underprivileged, or at least the privileged and the middle class, and impacts campus diversity.

In a study that appeared in the American Economic Review (December 2010), Christopher Avery and Jonathan Levin stated that early decision by elite colleges “tends to be captured by students who are well off and well informed” and that “some prominent academic leaders have argued that early admissions should be curtailed.” Recognizing the inherent inequalities associated with early decision, Yale and Stanford Universities changed from early decision to early action in 2003-2004. During the fall of 2006, Harvard University announced plans to end its early decision policy entirely. In 2007-2008, Princeton University followed Harvard’s lead. Harvard’s Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, William R. Fitzsimmons, stated “Early applications tended to be disproportionately white and affluent, and there was a growing perception that early admissions was becoming an exclusive club, to which somehow only a few were invited. That worked against the whole idea of access.” Given the visibility and reputation of Yale, Stanford, Harvard, and Princeton, these developments have encouraged other colleges to reevaluate their own early decision programs.

The Dilemma College Admissions Officers Face

That was 2003-2008. Fast forward to 2009, in the midst of one of the most serious economic downturns in American history. The picture has changed significantly. The October 21, 2011 edition of the online higher education publication Inside Higher Ed reports that, “The recession appears to have been very good for the practice of ‘early decision’ in which applicants must commit to enroll if admitted. Not only are many colleges reporting increased interest from applicants in applying early, but 2009 saw a jump in the proportion of colleges reporting that they were increasing the number of students admitted this (early decision) way.” The economic pressure is clearly on colleges to admit a larger percentage of early decision applicants than regular applicants (70% vs.55%). Inside Higher Ed has also reported that “47% of colleges reported an increase in the number of early decision applications they received, about the same proportion as the previous two years.” Further, according to Inside Higher Ed, 65 percent of colleges that actively apply early decision policies reported that they admitted more students in 2009 than in 2008 through the early decision process.

So, although many admissions officers readily agree that early decision favors wealthier students, the economic tug associated with filling classes early in the year is too tempting to resist during economic hard times. Time is money, in the opinion of college admissions officers who are increasingly under pressure to eliminate the uncertainty of freshman class size as the academic year approaches. According to Insider Higher Ed, “”Many admissions officers say they agree with the critics (of early decision), yet can’t resist a tactic that allows them to fill a larger share of their classes earlier in the year.”

Why Colleges Like Early Decision

Colleges like early decision programs because it is a good way to compete for the most talented students. Early decision eliminates some of the guesswork for college admissions directors. Colleges lose half or more of their admitted students to other schools so early decisions help smooth out the budget process. After all, in the end, operating a college efficiently and effectively is all about business management. In the eyes of many college admissions officers, an early decision student is a low risk investment.

In an interview with writer James Fallows and Bruce Poch, Admissions Director at Pomona College, Mr. Poch reported that early decision for them becomes a measure of commitment. “It’s worth something to the institution to enroll kids who view the college as their first choice,” he says. “Fewer people are whining about transferring from day one. They turn out to be a lot of the campus leaders.”

College admissions officers are less likely to talk about the U.S. News & World Report rankings but there is suggestion that early decision can improve a school’s statistics. The US News rankings procedures have changed over the years of publishing their national rankings lists of the nation’s best colleges. The statistical measures that matter here are a college’s selectivity and its yield.

Selectivity measures how difficult it is to get into a school. A school that accepts one applicant out of four is more selective than one that accepts two out of three. A college’s yield is the proportion of students offered admission who actually attend. In practice yield measures “takeaways”; if one school gets a student that is admitted to several other universities, it scores a takeaway from each of the other schools. The higher the yield and the larger the number of takeaways, the more desirable the school is thought to be. Under this process, early decision provides a way to improve a college’s selectivity and yield simultaneously, thereby elevating the school’s national ranking. This, in turn, attracts more of those low risk students a college can count on to graduate from their school.

So, while it is admirable that administrators like Harvard’s William Fitzsimmons see the inherent inequality of the early decision process, economic forces often force elite schools to balance principle with practicality.

A Final Thought

Despite Harvard’s decision in 2006 to drop their program, and Princeton, Yale, and Stanford’s decisions to follow suit, early decision is probably not going to disappear anytime soon, particularly during a period of serious economic decline. Possible reforms would assure more consistent aid packages and limit the number of students accepted. While early admission can help the bottom line of colleges and universities, it holds the inherent risk of creating a two-tiered higher education system that excludes those of lower socioeconomic status. This cannot serve the greater interests of a fair and equitable higher education system predicated on merit, not wealth and privilege.

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