Students don't benefit from early decision policies

Monday, December 17, 2012 | 3:50 p.m. CST; updated 6:43 p.m. CST, Monday, December 17, 2012

For many high school seniors, this year’s ideal holiday present is not an Xbox or the new iPhone. It cannot be picked up from Walmart or even ordered from Amazon. It arrives in the mail, usually in mid-December, a fat envelope – if they should be so lucky – that could determine where the students spend their next four academic years.

If now seems like an early time for an admissions decision that’s because it is – this is the time many colleges grant admissions decisions to applicants who applied for early decision. Students who apply to a school for early decision are required to attend if they are accepted. To many students, this is a frightening prospect – why should a teenager make a decision in November (most schools’ deadline for applying early decision) that could otherwise be put off until May?

According to the College Board, the benefits of early decision are that it can:

  • Reduce stress by cutting the time spent waiting for a decision.
  • Save the time and expense of submitting multiple applications.
  • Gain more time, once accepted, to look for housing and otherwise prepare for college.
  • Reassess options and apply elsewhere if not accepted.

However, the College Board fails to mention one important benefit: applying early has an astonishing impact on increasing a student’s chance of admission to selective institutions. For instance, at each of the Ivy League universities that utilize early decision — Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, and Penn— last year’s acceptance rate for those who applied for early decision was more than twice the rate of those who applied for regular decision; at Columbia and Dartmouth, the early decision acceptance rate was well over triple the regular rate.  

Admissions officials favor early decision for several reasons. In 2003, Harvard economists Christopher Avery, Richard Zeckhauser and former Wesleyan admissions officer Andrew Fairbanks published "The Early Admissions Game," which explores the nuances of the early admissions process. They explain that early decision allows these college administrators to ensure that high-caliber students attend their institutions. Similarly, early decision boosts the college’s yield – the percentage of admitted students who choose to attend. This otherwise trivial statistic is significant because it affects the score U.S. News & World Report assigns each college to determine its ranking by as much as 2.25 percent. Although these rankings are largely considered to be arbitrary, they nonetheless affect where top candidates apply.

Officials argue that early decision acceptance rates are higher not because the schools are more lenient but because more qualified students apply early.  

But this view is not supported by data.

Avery, Fairbanks and Zeckhauser found that applying early can raise chances of getting in for an “unhooked” applicant (i.e. not a minority, athlete or legacy student) as much as if he or she had scored 100 points better on the SAT. At Columbia University, for instance, this could translate into raising an above-average applicant’s chances of acceptance from 25 percent if applying for regular decision to a staggering 85 percent if applying for early decision.

In light of these facts, defenders of the status quo argue that it is still a fair system because anyone can apply to these schools for early decision.

This argument does not stack up to reality either. Students who rely on financial aid for education forfeit the opportunity to compare aid packages if they apply for early decision; if their top choice offers a stingy aid package, poor students often are stuck between going thousands of dollars into debt and forfeiting an offer of admission to a prestigious school.

In an ideal world, colleges would either eradicate early decision or make the acceptance rates equal, regardless of when students apply. Indeed, both Harvard and Princeton did away with early decision in 2006, citing its contribution to socioeconomic inequality.  

However, both schools felt that they were losing potential applicants to early admissions programs at rival institutions and adopted restrictive early action for their classes of 2016.  

In this system, students may apply to one college early but are not required to attend if accepted. Low-income students may be satisfied knowing that they can compare financial aid packages from different schools. Simultaneously, college officials can accept a high percentage of the class early and maintain high yield rates — a large proportion of those admitted early choose to attend.  

Although not a perfect compromise,early admission is certainly an improvement upon early decision. And if early admission can be comfortably used by Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Stanford, University of Chicago, Yale, etc., there is no reason other selective institutions cannot also replace early decision.

Riaz Helfer is a 2011 graduate of Rock Bridge High School and attends Columbia University. 

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