Early Decision College Admissions Is a Rigged Game, Benefits Rich Kids

What’s the hardest college in America to get into? You’re probably thinking it’s Harvard, which admitted just 3% of applicants this year, but you’re wrong. The hardest college to get into — assuming you submitted your application by the “regular decision” deadline on January 15 — is Tulane. Of the 14,000 or so high-school students who applied to Tulane on the RD schedule, just 106 got in. That makes Tulane’s official acceptance rate a mind-blowing 0.7%.

How did Tulane do it? Through the power of “early decision,” which it first started offering for the freshman class of 2017. ED programs require students to submit their application by November 1, to agree not to apply early decision anywhere else, and to enroll if admitted, before. they receive any offer of financial aid. In exchange, applicants gain a significant advantage in the admissions process and learn whether they get in before Christmas.

Colleges, however, get even more out of ED. The process enables them to nail down a significant portion of their freshman class — and hence, their annual revenue — before they even look at RD applications. That, in turn, makes it easier for them to reject more RD applications and drive down their acceptance rates into Harvard territory. The only way Tulane can afford to reject 99% of its applicants in the regular round is if it’s confident it has already locked down most of its class through early decision. ED also enables colleges to rope in standout athletes, foreign applicants, and students from wealthy families, all of whom are more likely to apply for early decision than students with fewer resources. For a school like Tulane, ED is Christmas before Christmas.

But what about the 14,000 high-school students who applied to Tulane RD, with no clue that most of next year’s freshman class had already been admitted? Would they have bothered to apply had they known their chances of getting in were close to zero? Like most colleges that offer early decision, Tulane didn’t advertise that it had almost no spots left in its freshman class to applicants before it accepted their applications. Fortunately, data on ED acceptance rates is collected in a survey called the Common Data Set, which I used to calculate the advantage provided to prospective students who applied ED for the fall of 2020.

That advantage can be large. At many colleges and universities, the acceptance rate for early decision is more than double that of regular decision. At Dartmouth and Columbia it’s more than triple, and at Brown and Duke it’s more than quadruple. With odds like that, it’s no surprise that some high-school students decide to apply ED, hoping to cut the line to their dream school. But for many disadvantaged students, early decision is more of a nightmare — one more rigged step in a college-admissions process that is already rigged against them.

Early bird gets the acceptance letter

One explanation for the ED acceptance boost is that the students who apply early tend to be desirable to admissions offices, especially at highly selective liberal-arts colleges. Coaches at small Division III schools often push athletes they’re recruiting to apply ED to land them quickly. Some college consultants told me that many schools also advised legacy applicants to apply early. And of course, the kind of students who can commit to a college without knowing how much it will cost them tend to be the kind of students who have invested heavily in becoming competitive candidates.

But students who apply ED aren’t getting an advantage just because they’re more desirable from an admissions standpoint. Applying early gives students an advantage just by virtue of applying early. One study found that early decision boosted students’ chance of acceptance by 20 to 30 percentage points — equivalent to 100 extra points on the SAT.

It’s important to note that few colleges offer ED, and most students never apply ED. Early decision is rare because there are only so many colleges able to attract enough applications, particularly from qualified students who can pay full freight to attend, to make an ED plan worth offering. Only 9% of four-year colleges offered ED applications in 2020, and only 3% of freshmen were admitted through early decision. The number is rising slowly, but what’s worrisome isn’t that ED is expanding to more colleges — it’s the way it’s expanding at the highly selective colleges that already offer it. In 2017, Tulane admitted 26% of its freshman class ED. By 2020, the share was 50%. This fall, based on data from Tulane, it will hit 60%.

Other schools are following suit. Boston College doubled its ED share from 2015 to 2020. At Washington University in St. Louis, it grew by two-thirds. Bates College in Maine has always been a heavy user of ED, but it hit a new national high in 2020, when four out of five freshmen enrolled through early decision.

What’s wrong with leaning into early decision? After all, anyone can apply ED. The problem is who actually applies. Early decision heavily favors wealthy students with the financial and cultural capital necessary to take the chance of committing to a college without knowing how much it could cost or comparing financial-aid offers from other schools. A few highly selective colleges and universities with large endowments that offer ED promise to meet a student’s full financial need if they’re accepted, but the vast majority do not. Tulane, which costs $82,790 to attend, doesn’t. And while most colleges that offer ED let students back out of their commitment if they cannot afford to enroll, many families aren’t aware of that loophole. Besides, most students who apply ED are focused on acceptance, not affordability. You don’t sign a blank check to an $80,000-a-year college if you’re worried about the price tag.

But applying ED takes more than money. It takes know-how, which is why one study found that the strongest predictor of students applying early decision was whether they hired a college-admission consultant. Data shared with me by Common App, which offers a single online application form used by more than 900 colleges and universities, reinforces the significant role that resources and background play in determining who applies ED. Those most likely to apply ED for the fall of 2022 were students at private independent schools, students from outside the US, and students from America’s wealthiest ZIP codes. Those least likely to apply ED? Poor and middle-class students, and Americans of any race or ethnicity other than white or Asian.

A boon for diversity?

Some early-decision advocates say it can help colleges improve diversity in admissions. Among them is Sara Urquidez, the executive director of the Academic Success Program, which provides college counseling for students in Texas public schools. Many have almost no money to pay for college — and for them, Urquidez says, being at the front of the ED line makes it more likely they’ll receive some of the limited financial aid a school has to offer. Swarthmore, Smith, Williams, and Johns Hopkins have all increased their share of students enrolled through ED in recent years — but they’ve also accepted more low-income and underrepresented students, in part because they pledge to meet the full financial need of anyone. who is accepted. As long as a college makes that pledge, Urquidez believes, ED can be a force for good.

But how often is it? One of the problems with evaluating early decision is that colleges share so little information about the process. When I asked Bates College for data on who applied and enrolled through early decision, for instance, I received an email saying, “We’re going to decline this opportunity.” I guess I know how all those rejected RD applicants to Bates feel.

One step in the direction of fairness would be to have the Department of Education require colleges to provide more information about early decision. The government, which already conducts an extensive annual survey of higher education, could easily include questions about who applies, who is admitted, and who enrolls through ED. Then it could break down the results by type of high school, race and ethnicity, legacy status, and other characteristics. That way, we would be able to see whether ED is helping students or harming them.

But perhaps there’s no need for such nuance. The simplest solution to the unfairness of early-decision programs might be to ban them. That’s what Andrew Gounardes, a state senator in New York, has proposed. “Getting into the college of your choice should be a matter of ability and hard work,” Gounardes told me. “It should not be based on your ability to accept an offer without knowing about financial aid options.” His legislation would levy a fine on any college or university in the state that refuses to drop early decision.

At the very least, colleges that offer an admissions advantage through early decision should put more of their own skin in the game and promise to meet the full financial need of anyone they admit. That won’t erase the inherently discriminatory aspects of early decision, but it would make it a little fairer.


James S. Murphy is a higher-education policy analyst at Education Reform Now. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, Slate, and other magazines.

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