Early Decision is a relatively new phenomenon in the college admissions landscape. But in the few decades since its inception, it’s become such a prominent feature of college admissions that many colleges fill up to half their freshman class through Early Decision applications – and more are even filling over half their incoming class. There is much controversy surrounding its impact on students and families because it tends to advantage affluent students who attend top secondary schools. This blog post explores who stands to benefit from Early Decision, and how it affects the constituent groups of students, families, high schools, and colleges.
In the early centuries of college admissions, say from 1636 through the 1950s, all students applied through a Regular Admissions process, in which the deadline typically was January 1, and students received notification decisions by mid-April. But that all changed in the 1950s when a group of five smaller colleges that dubbed themselves the “Pentagonals” – Amherst, Bowdoin, Dartmouth, Wesleyan, and Williams – decided to offer a binding Early Decision option in order to grab top students before they applied to Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.
As Early Decision became an increasingly popular option—and admissions became increasingly competitive—students felt increasing pressure to apply early, in order to maximize their chances of admission. In 2004, Yale and Stanford switched from ED to SCEA (Single Choice Early Action) in order to decrease the stress on students. The non-binding option, they argued, would alleviate the additional pressure students face in having to commit before they’re fully ready.
Objections to Early Admissions, however, soon took on an additional dimension. In 2006, Harvard, Princeton, and UVA made the bold move to no longer offer any kind of early admissions program because of research suggesting that such programs disadvantage students from lower socioeconomic groups for a variety of reasons. These families needed to compare financial aid offers from more than one college; in addition, often students in under-resourced high schools were not made aware of early admissions options, often missing out altogether.
Harvard, Princeton, and UVA hoped to serve as role models, and expected that other colleges would follow suit. While other colleges, such as Stanford, publicly supported their new policy, no colleges followed. This strategically disadvantaged Harvard, Princeton, and UVA, since other colleges could now grab top students through binding early programs, and within several years, all three resumed an early admissions program, with Harvard and Princeton offering SCEA, and UVA offering EA and, in 2019, ED as well.
In fact, more and more colleges are now offering binding ED plans. In 2016, University of Chicago, Haverford, Wake Forest, and Wellesley added ED plans; and Tulane replaced its SCEA with ED. In 2019, Boston College replaced its EA program with ED. Very few of the most selective private colleges in the country now offer a non-restrictive early admissions option; these include Georgetown and MIT.
Impact of Early Decisions on Regular Decisions
Many colleges are now filling at least 40% or more of their incoming freshman class through Early Decision, as we discuss in our blog post on trends in the Early Admissions process. This leaves significantly fewer spots for the vastly greater numbers of students who apply through Regular Decision. For example, at Penn, 7,795 ED applications were submitted for the Class of 2026, and 15.6% were accepted, filling about 50% of Penn’s incoming freshman class. That means that the significantly larger regular pool must compete for the remaining spots. For the Class of 2025, 48,371 students applied in Regular Decision, and only 4.4% were admitted.
See the chart below for the percentage of the freshman class filled through ED for a select group of colleges.
The discrepancy between the numbers of applicants and review time for ED versus RD can affect the quality of review of an applicant’s file in the RD round. On the one hand, admissions officers have about twice as much time to review applications in the Regular Round, as they typically have three months for RD applications, from January 1 through April 1, and 1 ½ months for ED applications, from November 1 – December 15. But if the admissions staff receive a whopping 6x as many RD applications, as in Penn’s case, the review process will be much more compressed, and students who have a unique story to tell may not receive the same quality of consideration.
Who Benefits from Early Decision?
- Students from families who do not need to compare financial aid packages
- Strong academic students who have sufficiently compelling GPAs by the end of junior year and test scores by October of senior year, and who do not need further testing or 1st semester grades to bolster their candidacy
- Students from top high schools with sufficient resources to provide individualized guidance in educating students about the benefits of early decision
- Students from educated parents who are familiar with early decision options
- Students who have private test prep tutors who advise them to take standardized tests in junior year so that they will have scores in time to submit for early deadlines
- Top high schools whose students take advantage of early decision to selective colleges. and who consequently are admitted at higher rates.
- Colleges who value students’ demonstrated interest. ED is often used by small to medium sized colleges who want to build a tight-knit community of students who are especially loyal to the school.
How Do Students Benefit from Early Decision?
- Great acceptance rate. Simply put, students are more likely to be accepted. Typically, the acceptance rate is higher for students who apply through a restrictive early program, such as ED or SCEA, because the applicants are demonstrating a strong degree of interest in attending the college.
- A more relaxed senior year. Students know where they will be attending by December 15. This eliminates the stress of waiting to find out where they have been accepted, enables the seniors to have a relaxed second semester, and provides them with a longer time in which to plan for the start of college.
- Access to scholarships. Many merit scholarships are open only to students who apply by fall deadlines.
How Do High Schools Benefit from Early Decision?
- Higher admit rate for the students who apply ED. High schools publicize their college acceptance and matriculation outcomes, and successful outcomes make the school district more desirable for families who value education, increase property values, and draw new residents.
How Do Colleges Benefit from Early Decision?
- The accepted students are more devoted and loyal to the college; they will be stronger spokespeople for the college, and their positive feelings will affect other students
- As alums, the graduates will likely donate more money because the college was a top choice, and that college accepted them in the early round
- The colleges’ “yield” (the percentage of accepted students who choose to attend) will increase, which increases predictability in calculating the freshman year
- With increased yield, US News & World Report’s rankings increase
Who is Disadvantaged by Early Decision?
- Students from families who need to compare financial aid packages
- Students from large public high schools with over-burdened guidance counselors who do not have the resources to educate students about the benefits of early decision
- First-generation students whose parents may not speak English, may not be as actively involved in the high school, and may not be as aware of all the options of admissions plans
- Students who do not have the financial resources for private test preparation, and are not knowledgeable about the timeline required to obtain scores in time for early deadlines
- Under-resourced high schools whose students do not take advantage of ED options, and have a lower chance of acceptance through RD
- Colleges who philosophically oppose ED, such as Catholic colleges, and may lose out on top students who would rather have the certainty of an ED acceptance.
According to the Center for American Progress, “Early decision policies at colleges and universities favor wealthy families and create additional barriers for marginalized communities.”
The issue may be most effectively addressed by individuals and organizations that provide outreach to lower-income students. Also, colleges are seeking top-quality students from diverse backgrounds through a variety of programs, including American Talent Initiative, QuestBridge, the KIPP Foundation, and A Better Chance.
However, the situation may have improved unexpectedly due to the pandemic and the adoption of test-optional admissions policies. Last year, the New York Times reported, “The aftermath of the George Floyd protests and a decreased reliance on standardized tests have led to more diverse admissions at elite universities.” It is hopeful that the transition to test-optional admissions, caused by difficulties arising from the pandemic, may have helped more diverse applicants in feel encouraged to apply to highly selective institutions without test scores. Also the colleges’ shift to virtual marketing and tours, while campuses have been more restricted due to covid, may have helped students, who could not afford to visit in-person, find out more about the school online and engage virtually with admissions officers.
The college admissions process can be overwhelming, and it may feel difficult to know where to start. At Collegiate Gateway, we are eager to share our expertise and guide you on the path to your “best fit” college. Please feel free to contact us! As always, we’re happy to help!
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