Understanding the Early Decision Debate

The Fastweb Team

August 26, 2016

Understanding the Early Decision Debate
Asking for a college commitment so early in the senior year may rush a decision when a student does not have all the information needed to make an informed decision.
In recent years, high-profile schools have made headlines by dropping the early decision option from their admissions deadlines. Why are schools like Harvard, Princeton and the University of Virginia abandoning these policies and what does this mean for you?

Differences in Admission

Colleges typically offer different admissions options. Early admission, which is at the center of the recent debate, has two forms: early decision and early action. Both allow students to apply for admission in the fall and learn if they are accepted in December.
Early decision is binding – a student must agree to attend that school if accepted and may not apply early to more than one school. Early action isn’t binding and students can still wait until the spring to accept offers.

The Benefits of Early Admission

Students can benefit from early admission. At selective schools, the acceptance rates of students who apply through early admission tend to be higher than regular admission.
In some cases, applying through early decision gives applicants an advantage that is the equivalent of adding 100 points to their SAT score, according to The Early Admissions Game, by Christopher Avery. Students can be up to 34.8 percent more likely to get accepted during early decision admission than during regular admission, according to the author’s findings.

The Problems of Early Admission

Colleges that have eliminated early admission have cited its inequity as a motivation to end the process. "Students from more sophisticated backgrounds and affluent high schools often apply early to increase their chances of admission, while minority students and students from rural areas, other countries, and high schools with fewer resources miss out,” Harvard’s former President Derek Bok says in a press release announcing Harvard’s decision. One factor working against low-income students in the early admission process is its financial risk. Students admitted through early admission are bound to enroll and must accept any financial aid package offered, thus losing the chance to compare competing offers. This may not present a problem for an affluent student, but it is a major concern for less-privileged students. Others complain that early admission starts the college admission process too early, causing extra anxiety to an already stressful event. Asking for a college commitment so early in the senior year may rush a decision when a student does not have all the information needed to make an informed decision. Some admissions counselors worry that early admission shortens an applicant’s time in high school and doesn’t give the most accurate picture of their abilities. “Others who apply early and gain admission to the college of their choice have less reason to work hard at their studies during their final year of high school,” Bok says in the press release.

Why Should You Care?

But if you’re not applying to Harvard or the other schools eliminating early admission, why should you care? Despite these high-profile examples, it is unlikely that early admission will disappear altogether. Early admission is one tool colleges use to make sure they reach their class size targets. Eliminating early admission will likely be rarer at less selective institutions. Schools like Harvard and Princeton do not need to worry about filling their class rosters each year, but less well-known schools have reason to be concerned. “The reality of the business of education is that these [lower-tiered] schools need to keep their beds filled. It’s easy for Harvard and Princeton to do what they want,” Chuck Hughes, former college counselor and founder of Road to College says. With schools competing for top students, less prestigious schools are unlikely to give up locking in qualified students through early admission. These schools depend on early admissions to fulfill their class size goals. “This is a lot of hype around the top five percent of the applicant pool,” Hughes says, “it doesn’t really do anything to middle kids. It’s not going to change what they’re going to do.” The elimination of early admission may affect you even if you’re not planning on applying early or on attending an elite institution. Since some students aren’t guaranteed admission early, they may end up applying to more schools during the regular admissions process. “Two years from now we might see the admit rates of schools go even lower simply because there are a bunch of kids who are going to apply to 10 schools instead of two. I worked with students and when they gained admission to Harvard or Yale or Stanford early [action], they only applied to one or two other schools … now they may apply to 15 schools,” Hughes says.

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