Rethinking Early Decision

Here is a fact that should sound familiar to all who know about the benefits of early decision in the college admissions process: For the class of 2020, the regular decision acceptance rate to Ivy League schools was 6.8 percent, while the rate for early applicants was 20.3 percent.

This discrepancy is in part because colleges are more willing to accept qualified candidates who are also willing to commit to them. As Robert Massa, current Senior Vice President for Enrollment and Institutional Planning at Drew University, wrote in an article for The New York Times, such a dynamic makes gaining acceptance to students’ top choices easier through early decision.

According to a Cooke Foundation study, only 16 percent of high-achieving students whose families have annual incomes below $50,000 applied for college early-decision in the 2013-2014 academic year. Several factors could contribute to this low figure. Students from low-income backgrounds are generally less informed about the college admissions process than more wealthy students. James Fallows, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, said, “Rich and poor students alike may be free to benefit from today’s ED racket — but only the rich are likely to have heard of it.” This is the result of richer students’ access to an entire industry of professionals dedicated to guiding students through the college process and coaching them on everything from college essays to what types of colleges are best suited to a student’s educational interests.

Even so, low-income students who do know about early decision are still hesitant to apply this way, despite its obvious statistical benefits, because they require substantial financial aid and cannot commit to an institution without being able to compare the financial aid packages offered by all the colleges and universities that accept them. This presents an obvious disadvantage to students of low income. A study titled “Who Goes Early?: A Multi-Level Analysis of Enrolling via Early Action and Early Decision Admissions,” published in the Teachers College Record, concluded that “early admissions programs, and in particular, early decision, perpetuate social privilege and stratification.” They suggest that the least higher-education institutions can do is look at their own admissions data and inquire seriously and earnestly into the implications of their early admissions process.

Amherst College administrators need to think deeply about how their early decision process fits into their mission of economic fairness, equality and diversity. How might we make this a more equitable process for all students, given the potential flaws of early decision that experts have identified?

In 2006, Harvard, Princeton and the University of Virginia eliminated early admission with the intention of making the process fairer, but these colleges eventually reinstated it to remain competitive since virtually all their rival institutions kept it. It is difficult to determine if Amherst’s own competitiveness would be affected by doing away with early decision, but steps in the right direction need not be so drastic. For example, the college could make early decision non-binding, giving students more flexibility. Additionally, if there is in fact a trend of more wealthy students applying for and gaining early admission to Amherst, then outreach to high schools should not only seek to make low-income students aware of Amherst, it should also encourage students to apply early.

Around the country, colleges have recognized the negative social implications of the early admissions processes but have not been able to reconcile it with financial and competitive motives. If Amherst is serious about its commitment to making the admission process a level playing field, altering the early decision process is a good starting point.