Early-Decision Programs. ERIC Digest.
by Holub, Tamara
In early-decision programs, high school students apply early to their
first-choice college and receive an admissions decision by December of
their senior year. These programs are binding, meaning that if a student
is accepted to a college through the early-decision process, he/she must
rescind all applications to other colleges, and sign a contract to attend
the college granting early admission. By signing a binding contract, a
student forfeits his/her chance to compare financial aid and enrollment
packages from other institutions. Students are allowed to have only one
early-decision application pending at any time (National Association for
College Admission Counseling, 2001).
EARLY-DECISION VERSUS EARLY-ACTION PROGRAMS
Early-action is a similar, but non-binding, program. Students who apply
through early action receive a response from the college ahead of regular
decision applicants, and, in accordance with new guidelines set by the
National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), may apply
to other colleges without restriction (NACAC, 2001). The number of both
early-decision and early-action applicants has been steadily rising for
the last decade (Fallows, 2001). About 270 colleges and universities offer
early-decision programs (Loftus, 2002). According to a recent study by
NACAC, of colleges surveyed that had either an early-decision or early-action
program, 50 percent of institutions responding reported an increase in
the number of early-decision applicants; 31 percent reported a decrease;
and 19 percent reported no change ("NACAC Study," 2002). Eighty percent
of institutions responding to the same survey reported an increase in the
number of early-action applicants, and 20 percent reported no change ("NACAC
POSITIVE ASPECTS OF EARLY-DECISION PROGRAMS
The growing popularity of early decision has spurred debate among college
administrators, high school counselors, parents, and students about the
consequences of the program. Early decision benefits students who are certain
which college they want to attend regardless of what financial aid might
be available to them from other schools. Being accepted early also eliminates
the stress associated with applying to multiple schools and maximizes the
amount of time available for students to plan their new lives at a particular
CRITICISMS OF EARLY DECISION-PROGRAMS
Much of the current literature on early decision focuses on the negative
aspects of the program. A major criticism of early decision is that it
seems to favor students from upper middle-class backgrounds, especially
those who attend private schools or public schools in affluent suburban
districts (Toor, 2001). Rachel Toor, a former admissions counselor at Duke
"The early program decision works together with other factors that reinforce
class lines. The people whose parents can pay for elite private high schools,
shell out additional thousands for 'independent college counselors,' visit
campuses and meet with the 'right people,' and, yes, who know that applying
early can give them a boost - they are clearly at an advantage" (Toor,
2001, p. B16).
Many college admissions counselors admit that students who apply early
have a better chance of being accepted than students who apply through
regular decision (See Loftus, 2002, p. 70). The favorable acceptance statistics
across the board for early-decision admissions have influenced many high
school students to feel that they have to apply early in order to maximize
their chances of getting into a good college. A 2000 study of five years
of admissions records from 14 selective colleges by Christopher Avery and
colleagues at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government shows that
this may be true (as cited in Fallows, 2001). Avery's study found that
the competitive value of an early-decision application was equivalent to
100 SAT points more than a regular decision application (as cited in Fallows,
2001). Admission rates for early-decision applicants are higher than for
regular-decision applicants. For example, in 2002, Johns Hopkins University
admitted 59% of its early-decision applicants compared to 33% of its regular-decision
applicants; the University of Pennsylvania admitted 38% of the early pool
compared to 16% of the regular pool (Loftus, 2002, p. 70). Thus, students
feel pressed to maximize their chances of getting into a school instead
of taking the time to research schools and identify one or more offering
a good fit. (Gerson, 1998, p.68)
Early decision may also have other negative consequences. Early-decision
college applicants who are not accepted via the early-decision program
may be greatly disappointed and discouraged. After submitting the application,
some students entertain doubts about their choice to apply early and experience
anxiety as a result. Some students may also receive deferrals from the
early response, putting them in admissions limbo (Gerson, 1998, p. 68).
EARLY-DECISION PROGRAMS AND COLLEGE RANKINGS
Another controversial aspect of early decision is that colleges use
the program to increase their rankings in U.S. News & World Report's
"America's Best Colleges" (See Fallows, 2001; Ehrenberg, 2000). According
to James Fallows, a former editor of U.S. News & World Report, a college's
selectivity and yield are two statistics used to determine college rank.
Selectivity measures the difficulty of being admitted to a school and yield
measures the proportion of students who attend (Fallows, 2001). Every college
has a target number of students for acceptance each year. When a college
admits a large portion of its entering class through early decision, it
can send out fewer offers than it would have to without early decision.
Thus, early decision increases a college's yield and selectivity, potentially
moving the college higher in the U.S. News rankings. Many argue that colleges
who use early decision mainly to increase their rankings are performing
a great disservice to students.
Cornell professor Ronald Ehrenberg, who has studied the controversy
surrounding college rankings, argues that "It is reasonable to suggest
that we would be better off as a society if institutions limited the number
of students that they enroll through the early-decision process" (Ehrenberg,
2000, p. 90). Many colleges insist on maintaining their early-decision
programs, claiming that they would be at a disadvantage if they ended their
programs if their rivals did not do the same (See Ehrenberg, 2000, p. 90;
Arenson , 2001, p. D1).
ENDING EARLY-DECISION PROGRAMS
Administrators at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill discontinued
their early-decision program in 2002 because an internal analysis showed
that the program worked against minority and low-income students. Their
study revealed that 82 percent of the early- decision applicants were white
compared to 69 percent of the applicants from later applicant pools (Lucido,
2002, p. 28). Also, applicants from the early-decision pool were less likely
to apply for need-based aid than applicants in early-action or regular-decision
applications (Lucido, 2002, p. 28).
In 2002, Mary Washington College in Virginia decided to end its early-decision
program "in response to growing complaints that such programs add unnecessary
stress to the increasingly intense process of applying to colleges" ("Va.
College," p. A3).
DEFYING NACAC GUIDELINES
Both Yale and Stanford Universities announced in November of 2002 that
they will drop their early-decision programs in 2003, with applications
for the 2004-5 academic year. Both universities plan to adopt a nonbinding
early-action program that---in defiance of NACAC policy-- forbids early
applicants to their schools from applying early to other colleges. NACAC
policy stipulates that students are free to apply early to multiple colleges,
as long as no more than one application is under a binding early-decision
program. Yale University President Richard Levin called the NACAC policy
"'ill-founded'" and said that '''colleges should be able to set their own
policies about admission'" (Young, 2002).
College and university administrators across the country are increasingly
being called upon to reexamine their early-admission programs and their
negative consequences. Though it is too early to determine the fate of
the majority of early-decision programs-whether they will be maintained
as they are, replaced by early action programs, modified in some new way,
or ultimately discarded-there is clearly a movement afoot that advocates
Arenson, K. (2001, December 21). Yale president wants to end early decisions
for admissions. The New York Times, p. D1.
Ehrenberg, R.G. (2000). Tuition rising: Why college costs so much. Cambridge,
MA: Harvard University Press.
Fallows, J. (2001, September). The early-decision racket. The Atlantic
Monthly. Retrieved July 10, 2002 from http://www.theatlantic.com
Gerson, M. (1998). The price of applying early. U.S. News America's
best colleges. Washington, DC: U.S. News & World Report Inc., 68-70.
Heller, A. (2002, January 18). Taking a gamble on the admissions game
[Electronic version]. The Yale Herald.
Hoover, E. (2002, January 11). New attacks on early decision [Electronic
version]. The Chronicle of Higher Education, A45.
Loftus, M. (2002, September 23). Early decision. U.S. News & World
Lucido, J. (2002). Eliminating early decision: Forming the snowball
and rolling it downhill. The College Board Review, No. 197, 4-29.
National Association for College Admission Counseling (2001). Definitions
of Admission decision options in higher education. Retrieved October 3,
2002 from http://www.nacac.com/downloads/policy_admission_options.pdf
National Association for College Admission Counseling (2002). NACAC
study shows college application numbers, financial aid requests on the
rise. Retrieved October 28, 2002 from http://www.nacac.com/research_trends_snapshot.html
Toor, R. (2001, January 26). Early decision and the politics of class
[Electronic version]. The Chronicle of Higher Education, B16.
Va. college to eliminate 'early decision' program. (2002, October 3).
The Washington Post, p. A12.
Young, J.R. (2002, November 22). Yale and Stanford End Early-Decision
Options and Defy National Group [Electronic version]. The Chronicle of
Higher Education, A58.