An Early End to Early Admissions

By Watson Scott SwailPresident & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute

Among the big news in higher education this week (apart from the 10 percent plan in Texas which I don’t have time to get to) was Harvard’s announcement, followed quickly by Princeton (not to be outdone), to dump the Early Decision/Early Action admissions programs.

Early decision/action programs have been in vogue for the past decade, allowing students to submit their applications early and be selected by as early as November or December while still in their senior year of high school. The difference between the “decision” program and the “action” program is simply that Early Decision (ED) forces students to commit to attend that college the following fall; Early Action (EA) doesn’t. These programs only matter at selective institutions, which constitute approximately 20 percent of the four-year colleges and universities in the United States.

Colleges like ED programs for a number of reasons, prominent being that it lengthens the admissions year, which in turn can reduce the one-time crunch that many schools that don’t do ED are forced to endure. ED also has the potential to increase the yield of students who choose a particular institution as their “first choice,” which is good for an institution.

But ED has its critics. Many higher education and admissions professional acknowledge that ED and EA tend to give additional advantage to those who already have considerable advantage—students of affluent backgrounds. And this goes to reason. Students who are more affluent, who have more educational capital because of their parents’ backgrounds, and who live in areas that have a higher value of postsecondary studies, are much more likely to be in a situation to think of college at an earlier age, plan for college, and take the necessary steps for college. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), students from high socio-economic status (SES) backgrounds, when compared to low-SES students, were much more likely to plan for college and professional studies, complete academic high school programs and test higher in academic areas, and apply for college. In fact, data from the National Educational Longitudinal Study (NELS) illustrate that 79 percent of high-SES students from the original 8th-grade sample applied to at least one college compared with only 44 percent of low-SES students. Additionally, 78 percent of the high-SES students applied to two or more institutions; only 31 percent of low-SES students did the same (NCES, 1996).

My point here is that advantage begets advantage, and it is these students—the high-SES and affluent students—who are taking advantage of early decision. You can bet it wasn’t the students on their own doing this. It was those students with their BA-level parents who were pursuing (or pushing) ED and EA options.

The premise behind ED isn’t bad. In fact, it makes a lot of sense to higher education and those on a college track. I’ll admit, in a few years, when my children are at college age and I’ve robbed a bank to pay for their tuition, I would definitely consider ED or EA if they were interested in a selective institution (I’m thinking State College at this point, but don’t tell them that). It just makes sense. Data show that students with lower academic records get accepted at higher rates in ED than those who wait until regular decision in the spring. So why not do it? It gives an advantage to that group who has the finger on the trigger, so to speak.

But from a public policy standpoint, is ED/EA worth the cost of increasing the educational opportunity gap? Harvard doesn’t think so, and nor does Princeton. Of course, these are “different” institutions that most of us could only dream about going (us or our kids). They can afford to make these choices to do the “right thing.” But will others? People are now expecting many institutions to do the same. But not all will, because they perhaps don’t have the staffing (anymore) to go back to the traditional system which demanded incredible hours during admissions period.

Our policies at the institutional level should focus on expanding opportunity, especially to those who historically haven’t had access to postsecondary education, let alone selective institutions. It’s reassuring to a certain degree that Harvard and other elite institutions occasionally do the right thing for the right reasons. Dropping Early Decision is one of them.

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