The Discriminatory (Dis)advantages of the Early Decision Process

Written by Max Kronstadt

Ask Colorado College students about their application process and many of them will tell you they applied Early Decision—about one-third of the class of 2020, to be more precise.

CC is not unique in this. At 37 of the nation’s most elite schools, over 40 percent of the class of 2019 was admitted ED, a Washington Post search found this March. The search also found that of the U.S. News and World Report’s top 60 colleges and universities, 48 admitted at least a third of their applicants via ED in 2015.

Though in theory the ED process is a win-win—students can express their commitment to a certain school and colleges can admit more students who will actually attend—in practice, it functions as yet another leg up for the wealthy, by locking students of lower socioeconomic status out of a process that gives applicants much higher chances of admission into the nation’s top colleges, including CC.

ED functions as a way for colleges to artificially lower their acceptance rates, which moves them up in national rankings and makes them seem more desirable. The more students a college accepts that are obligated to attend, the fewer it has to admit overall to fill its first-year class. Let’s say, for instance, a school received 5,000 applicants vying for 500 spots. Normally, about half of all accepted students decide to enroll at this school, so it has to admit 1,000 students to secure enrollment of 500. However, if it can admit 100 ED, it only has 400 spots to fill during Regular Decision, and so it will only admit 800. This means that it can accept 900 total, versus 1,000 previously, thereby artificially lowering the overall acceptance rate.

Because it is in a college’s best interest to admit a lot of students ED, the acceptance rates are significantly higher for ED applicants than for everyone else. For the CC class of 2020, the acceptance rate was 31.4 percent for ED applicants, versus 17.4 percent for Early Action (which is non-binding), and 6.2 percent for Regular Decision. These figures are pretty consistent with the rest of the nation’s top schools.

Many admissions officers will argue that athletes—usually ED applicants—who are already committed to the school and are guaranteed acceptance, inflate these numbers.  However, a study by researchers at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government revealed that, after factoring out athletes and legacies, applying ED increases a student’s chances of getting into a school as much as an extra 100 points on the SAT would (using an SAT total score of 1600).

Suffice to say, applying ED affords a large advantage to those who do so. The issue is that only some students can.

Students for whom price is a major factor in their college decision-making process are wary of binding commitments, and reasonably so. Ceding the right to compare financial offers from various schools is simply unwise and impractical for many families.

CC’s Vice President for Enrollment Mark Hatch argues that the accurate predictions of financial aid at CC take the questions out of the process and open ED up to everyone. “We are really very forthright with families: we do the Net Price Calculator,” he said. “Call us if you have any questions.” The Net Price Calculator is a tool students can use to get very accurate predictions of what their financial aid package would look like at CC.

This is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, but students are often still unsure of financial aid packages and possible merit scholarships at other schools.

College counselors advise students not to apply ED to a school if they have not visited.  While this is good advice, it’s not practical for many students because they don’t have the money to travel the country touring schools and often have jobs that won’t give them time off to visit colleges.

The ED process also benefits wealthier students because of an information gap. Students who can afford either to go to an elite private high school or hire a college counselor are more aware of the ED process and the associated advantages; students without these resources often haven’t even heard of ED or are unaware of how advantageous it really is.

The ED process is inherently unfair and there is no way to reform it. It should be eliminated all together. While it is only one of many factors that make elite higher education in the U.S. a system that perpetuates cycles of poverty, it is one of the easiest to get rid of.     

No one college is to blame for the widespread use of ED and no one college can end it alone. However, experts agree that if a few elite schools were to take a stand and stop using ED, it could precipitate a nationwide change.

CC prides itself on being a leader in inclusive education and is increasingly one of the nation’s most elite liberal arts schools. The CC administration can sit idly and claim the school isn’t in a strong enough position to take action or continue to deny that the ED process is unfair, but doing so is a fundamental abdication of responsibility. We, as students, should demand that our administration be stronger leaders in the fight for a more just system of higher education.

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