Is Early Admission Compounding Inequality at America’s Colleges?

Over the last decade, the practices of early acceptance and early decision have generally grown in popularity among the nation’s top colleges. The growing availability of this option can benefit students who know exactly what they want—and who will have no problem paying for it. However, evidence suggests that the early admission system is deeply tilted to benefit students from affluent high schools and well-off families. The beneficiaries of early admission are overwhelmingly white, wealthy, and privileged. So as more schools have adopted early admission policies, and as the number of students admitted early continues to grow, the window of access for disadvantaged students shrinks ever smaller. So how do early admissions work? And is there any way to fix the inherently unequal nature of this system?

Is Early Admission Compounding Inequality at America’s Colleges?

For most students, the college admissions calendar will look pretty similar. Get your FAFSA submitted by the end of June; send out your applications in January; check your mailbox/inbox for acceptance letters (hopefully) in the spring; and make the big decision by May.

But the calendar will look a lot different if you’re among the thousands of students considering early admission options like the non-binding Early Action (EA) option or Early Decision—in which you are automatically committed to attend if accepted.

If you are considering one of these early admission options, you’ll need to have everything ready to go—from application to essay; references to recommendations—by November. And if you do decide to shoot for Early Decision, you’ll need to decide right then and there how certain you are about attending a specific institution, because once that ED application is out of your hands, so is the decision.

If you are considering one of these early admission options, you'll need to have everything ready to go—from application to essay; references to recommendations—by November.”

As if college admissions weren’t complicated enough, right?

So the real question is, what are the benefits of early admissions? Is one of these options right for you? And what are the broader implications of early admissions to the field of higher education?

For a more comprehensive look at the admission process, check out our Guide to Applying for College. Otherwise, read on to find out how early admission works, whether it’s right for you, and whether you can even afford to do it.

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What’s the difference between Early Decision (ED) and Early Action (EA)?

First, let’s define a few key terms. Early admissions practices are generally divided into two notable categories—Early Decision (ED) or Early Action (EA). Either of these options allows you to complete and submit your application early—typically by a November deadline—so that you can be considered for early acceptance. Today, most elite schools in the U.S. offer either Early Decision, Early Action, or both.

If you seek Early Decision and are accepted, you are obligated to enroll in the accepting college. This means that Early Decision is truly only a logical option if you are already certain of the school you wish to attend. Once you’ve received acceptance, you’re in. The application process is over and you may now begin shopping for dorm swag.

If you choose Early Action, you have the option of accepting your invitation to attend early, but you are not obligated to enroll in the accepting school. You have the freedom to make your decision by the traditional May 1st deadline. However, acceptance through Early Action may prohibit you from seeking Early Decision or Early Action at another school.

Early Admissions are the New Regular Admissions

Now that we know what it is, let’s consider some of the current trendlines. The practice of early acceptance has become increasingly widespread among colleges in recent years. According to an article from Inside Higher Ed just over 100 schools offered the opportunity for early admission in the 1990s. By 2018, that number was greater than 450. If you plan on applying to one of these 450 schools according to the traditional schedule, you should know that a fairly substantial number of seats will have already been claimed by the time you click the “submit” button on your application. Whatever the overall admission rate is for this college, it’s actually lower for those who missed the early train.

Students who choose the “early decision” option...can lock in a seat at a top school before undecided students have the chance to dot their “I's” and cross their “T's.””

Students who choose the “early decision” option—in which they preemptively agree to commit to a school upon early acceptance—can lock in a seat at a top school before undecided students have the chance to dot their “I’s” and cross their “T’s.” In other words, those seats are taken. And depending on the school in question, that may be no small number of seats. A survey of 37 early admission schools in 2015 revealed that at least 40% of incoming freshmen that year were early-decision candidates. The number was as high as 54% for the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania.

So by the time students applying the traditional way get their bids in for UPenn, they are competing for less than half as many spots relative to the early birds.

How does early acceptance benefit colleges?

For many colleges, early acceptance represents overlapping opportunities to improve rank, reputation, and revenue. According to Inside Higher Ed, early admission allows schools to attract students “with a strong desire to attend, making it less likely the students will turn down offers of admission. That allows colleges to fill a good chunk of each freshman class early with a diverse mix of students. It also lets them shape a class with students needing little or no financial aid, to keep institutional budgets in balance.”

This gives colleges more assurances at the start of the college application process. Strategically speaking, this makes sense, with so many of today’s top students submitting applications to an ever higher number of colleges. Heightened competition and lower admission rates at America’s elite schools are prompting top students to send out as many as 10 or 20 applications in pursuit of a prestigious landing spot.

Heightened competition and lower admission rates at America's elite schools are prompting top students to send out as many as 10 or 20 applications in pursuit of a prestigious landing spot.”

While elite students must do so in order to play the odds to their advantage, early admissions give colleges one way of fighting back. By courting more students with the potential of rendering an early decision, elite colleges can offset some of the uncertainty created by this maximal application strategy.

This strategy has taken on increasing precedence in the year of the pandemic. The aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis has seen a broad-based decrease in the number of students applying for colleges. Early admission does help colleges offset lower application rates by procuring enrollment commitments at an earlier stage in the process.

Interestingly, at the same time, there has been a concentrated increase in the number of students applying for elite colleges (owing to an array of factors including a glut of students who deferred in 2020, a surge of international student applicants, and the institution of test optional admissions for many top schools). These converging forces have pumped up application numbers at elite schools.

For the top schools, there is the added benefit that filling seats early has driven down acceptance rates among regular decision applications. As Inside Higher Ed points out “College rankings, such as those compiled by U.S. News & World Report, often use a low admit rate as an indication of an institution’s desirability, boosting its ranking.”

In other words, elite colleges use the early admission process as a way of improving their standings while colleges outside of the elite tier use early admission as a way of protecting their bottom line.

How does early acceptance benefit applicants?

If you happen to be a student in the position to take advantage of this process, early admission can present an awesome opportunity. Indeed, if you have the luxury of applying under early decision or early action terms, you can significantly improve your chances of acceptance at the top schools on your list. “For example,” says Inside Higher Ed, “for the Class of 2020, only 6.8 percent of all students who applied for regular-decision admission to Ivy League schools were accepted. But the acceptance rate in the Ivy League for early-decision applicants was 20.3 percent – nearly three times as high. At Harvard University, which had the lowest acceptance rate in the Ivy League, just 3.4 percent of students applying for regular admission to the Class of 2020 were admitted, compared to 14.9 percent of those applying early.”

“...students who do apply for early admission receive a boost in their chances of admission that is roughly equivalent to a 100-point hike on their SAT scores.””

So how best to quantify the value of early admission? A study from Harvard University Press explains that students who do apply for early admission receive a boost in their chances of admission that is roughly equivalent to a 100-point hike on their SAT scores. This, says Inside Higher Ed, is a tremendous advantage.

So that’s good news for students, right? Well, if you’re wealthy enough to make decisions about college absent financial considerations, it’s great. But for the vast majority of students who must base their decision at least partly on the availability of financial aid, it’s not so great.

How does early acceptance hurt disadvantaged students?

In a recent article, we explored the question of whether or not you should consider attending an elite college. As part of our exploration, we confronted the ugly reality that students from affluent backgrounds are dramatically more likely to attend top schools than are students from low-income families. Moreover, we learned that this disparity has little or nothing to do with academic performance. Excellent students from low-income backgrounds and cash-strapped high schools are simply being overlooked or ignored in favor of those who already enjoy every conceivable advantage.

According to an article from Inside Higher Ed, A 2017 study from Jack Kent Cooke Foundation “found that a mere 3 percent of students at America’s top colleges come from the 25 percent of families with the lowest incomes. In contrast, 72 percent of students at these institutions come from the 25 percent of families with the highest incomes.”

Unfortunately, early admission is only further magnifying the inequality at our elite schools. According to Inside Higher Ed, the practice of early admission is just one more way that schools give preferential treatment to the wealthy while leaving the financially disadvantaged with even fewer options and opportunities.

This is because, in most cases, the early deadlines that come with ED and EA may precede the receipt of financial aid. Despite this schedule, in most cases, you are required to pay a deposit immediately upon acceptance. This is a real financial hurdle for students who might otherwise be academically qualified to receive early acceptance into colleges or universities. In this regard, ED and EA are financially prohibitive options that are typically only accessible to more affluent students.

...in most cases, the early deadlines that come with ED and EA may precede the receipt of financial aid.”

In fact, according to Inside Higher Ed, many low-income students are not even made aware of the existence of early admissions. “For example,” says Inside Higher Ed, “many low-income students are never told in their junior year of high school that they will need to have their ACT or SAT scores in hand by early-admission application deadlines, which are in November of their senior year.”

This means that students who are already at a disadvantage in the college admission competition are not given the chance to prepare for this opportunity. And of course, the sheer financial implications place this opportunity generally outside the grasp of such students to begin with. Inside Higher Ed finds that “because low-income students can’t attend college without getting substantial financial aid, they can’t commit to enrolling in an institution by applying on an early-decision basis. They need to compare aid offers once they hear from all the colleges and universities that accept them. This fact alone essentially precludes those with financial need from applying early.”

Moreover, missing out on early acceptance is more problematic than simply losing the opportunity to make an early committment. The admission of so many advantaged students through this avenue means that the path to admission for the disadvantaged is yet further disadvantaged. According to a 2011 study in the Teachers College Record “those who enroll through early deadlines tend to be white, with higher family incomes and parents with greater levels of education [and that] early decision in particular works as a sort of class-based affirmative action that gives wealthier applicants a ‘plus’ factor: a higher likelihood of being admitted than if they applied under the regular-decision deadline.”

Easy Fixes

There are few easy answers to the inequalities that permeate higher education. And in the wake of the COVID crisis, answers are yet more elusive. One reason that applications have gone up for elite schools while otherwise declining across the board is because so many students from disadvantaged schools and backgrounds have dropped off of the college track altogether. As in almost every other respect, the pandemic has invariably damaged educational opportunities for people from at-risk and disadvantaged backgrounds.

So in the absence of easy answers, we can at least look to early admissions practices as ripe for reform. It’s clear that these practices carry advantages for colleges, and even clearer that these practices offer a leg-up to those who are already pretty close to the top of the ladder. If we wish to even marginally offset the inherent inequalities in higher education, we can start by either eliminating early admission practices or, perhaps more preferably, by providing early-opportunity financial aid packages for those willing to make early commitments.

It would seem that doing so is merely a matter of shifting the timeline long employed by the financial aid bureaucracy. If that sounds like a major source of upheaval for said bureaucracy, or the colleges that rely on it, we can assure you that it pales in comparison to the upheaval experienced by disadvantaged students over this last year.

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