The Early Advantage

Our present day understanding of early admissions can be traced back to a shift in US News’ university ranking system in the late 1980s.  This seemingly small shift incentivized universities to adopt early admission programs in the hopes of impacting their rank, and the 1990s saw a drastic increase in the number of institutions with early admissions programs. While it may have improved school rankings, this shift to early admission only further stratified the admissions landscape, benefiting already well-informed and wealthy applicants.

Schools mainly adopt one of two early admissions approaches. First, with early action programs, students are accepted well before the standard March announcement date, but do not have to commit to the school or decide until the spring. Second, early decision programs, where students are required to enroll if accepted. The latter has drawn the majority of the criticism regarding early admissions practices for its binding nature. Essentially, early action allows applicants to weigh their best option while schools with early decision programs require applicants to immediately withdraw their applications at other institutions if accepted.

This post will explore how colleges and universities are incentivized by early admissions strategies and how applying early is seen as a competitive advantage that students leverage in the admissions process .

Institutional Strategy

As the number of schools that adopted early admissions strategies increased in the 1990s, schools also witnessed lower overall acceptance rates and bump in their selectivity rankings. The Wall Street Journal notes that, “The acceptance rates for early cycle applicants is often two or three times better than regular decision applicants.” Because acceptance rates are often higher in early admissions cycles, schools are able to reject a larger number of applicants during the regular cycle and reduce their overall acceptance rate. However, this has also allowed colleges and universities to fill a disproportionate percentage of their freshman class through early admissions, especially through early decision. Moreover, the Washington Post observes that top ranked colleges and universities were filling close to 40 percent of their seats through early decision. Institutions have acknowledged that early admissions practices, specifically early decision, disproportionately favor privileged applicants.

In fact, top ranked schools have tried to do away with early admissions policies.  Yale’s president, stated he’d like to end early admissions practices. Not only did he argue that Yale should remove its early decision option but advocated that Yale’s peers should do the same. Presidents at Columbia, UPenn, and Cornell admitted the early decision option can be misused but that the benefits of the policy outweigh the cons. Chen, Chen & Kao (2017) explore this event in more detail and argue that, “considering Yale’s rank is higher than Columbia, UPenn, and Cornell, those three schools have less incentive to eliminate early-decision programs.

An alternative approach could retain early admissions policies, but shift from early decision to a more flexible early action. The New York Times recounts when Harvard and Princeton made the decision to remove their early decision options in 2008. It was their hope that other schools would follow in eliminating their early policies as well. During this time, schools observed an increasing number of applicants applying early amidst the 2008 financial crisis as a result of heightened uncertainty and schools that didn’t have an early option were losing out on those top applicants. In both cases, Yale, Harvard, and Princeton decided to implement single choice, non-binding early action programs similar to the restrictive early action program at Georgetown.

Restrictive early action differs from early action in that applicants are only able to apply early to one institution. This means forgoing the ability to apply early action or early decision at any other school. For Georgetown, restrictive early action is an effective way to gauge the likelihood of an accepted applicant attending Georgetown. This strategy can be seen as a “student-centered” approach, allowing applicants the opportunity to know early on about their top choice but still having the regular admissions cycle to decide if Georgetown is a good match. From Georgetown admissions perspective, restrictive early  Georgetown continues to have a lower acceptance rate for early admissions than for its overall admissions rate while keeping restrictive early action as an option for student applicants. It is evident that removing early admissions is only advantageous if every institution removes their early admissions policies, and we know that is unlikely to happen, so what does this mean for promoting a more equitable admissions process?

In recent years, universities have increased their efforts to expand access and recruit talented students from low- and middle-income backgrounds. In addition to turning to organizations like LEDA to help identify applicants with high potential, many selective institutions have joined the American Talent Initiative (ATI) and the Coalition for College . Georgetown is part of ATI and has contributed to their efforts through expanding educational opportunity at Georgetown by recruiting and supporting low-, moderate-income students. ATI membership only strengthens an institution’s commitment to being all-in on the front of equity of access and experience.

Competitive Advantage

Applying early signals an applicant’s likelihood or certainty of matriculating into his or her top institution in the fall. While early admissions is a stronger indication of demonstrated interest, not all believe this is a fair approach. Many feel this strategy disadvantages particular applicants who aren’t as sure about where they want to go and who aren’t as well-resourced with regards to access to mentors, guidance counselors, or access to information about applying to college that early in the application process.

Early decision programs in particularly pose an obstacle to many students, as the binding nature of the application and acceptance disallows students the opportunity to shop around for the best financial aid package available. However, due to recent FAFSA changes that allow students to submit their financial aid work sooner, have also lessened concerns around the reduced opportunity to compare financial aid packages.

Based on data from the College Admissions Project – a survey of high school seniors who provided information about their college apps and financial aid packages during the 1999-2000 academic year, Avery & Levin (2010) outline and attempt to explain five findings about applicants who apply early:

  1. Early applicants at top schools are stronger than regular applicants in their numerical qualifications, but the reverse is true at lower-ranked schools.
  2. Admission rates of early applicants are higher than those of regular applicants, and this remains true after conditioning on students’ observable characteristics. Early application is associated with a 20 to 30 percentage point increase in acceptance probability, about the same as 100 additional points on the SAT.
  3. An admissions benefit provides an incentive for students to strategize: to apply early even if they are undecided about their preferences, or to apply early to a school that is not their absolute first choice.
  4. Students who are admitted early are more likely to enroll than students who are admitted through regular admissions.
  5. The type of early admission program varies with school characteristics: non-binding Early Action is offered disproportionately by the highest ranked universities.

Building on these findings, Avery & Levin (2010) demonstrate that schools see early admissions as a way to identify interested applicants, and it also gives less selective schools an opportunity to admit or secure top students who may be uncertain about their chances at a higher ranked school. W.-C. Chen et al (2017) take these results into consideration, ultimately concluding that school strategies limit student choice in the admissions process.  

Hoxby & Avery (2013) emphasized that access to information plays a crucial role in expanding educational opportunity and as the aforementioned research shows, not having that access only compounds the difficulty of applying early for individuals who are not as well-resourced as their higher-income counterparts. At the core, early admission practices benefit the applicants who have the cultural capital of knowing the advantages that come with applying early to college. Fortunately, in an effort to level the playing field, organizations like Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America (LEDA), Questbridge, and Matriculate are empowering high achieving low-income students to realize their potential and the entirety of college options that are within reach.


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