Are University Early Admissions Crowding out Qualified Students Applying Later?

Apr 11, 2014 | Updated Jun 11, 2014

As a college sophomore, I can still say with confidence that the applying to college was the most nerve-wracking and difficult process I've ever experienced. Discovering that there's a country full of high-achieving high school seniors with even higher expectations, who all want the same thing is a tough thing to face. And it's only getting more competitive in today's culture that praises achievement over all else. This trend is evidenced by not only the quality of applicants, but also by an increase in students who choose to solidify their college plans as soon as possible, through early decision and early action programs. While these programs seem to give students who have made up their minds to an advantage, the rising early decision acceptance rates raise questions, both for the students who are locked into their top choice school without other options and for those left behind for regular decision.

Not every early application process is the same. Early decision is a binding agreement while early action is not, and early action is split between single-choice and open selection options at different universities. All early application processes allow high school seniors to receive their decision by December, when some students are locked into a college before their senior years are half over.

In theory, it sounds great -- if a student knows what he or she wants, why not go for it right away and escape the stress and tough decisions of the typical college application process? I applied early decision to Northwestern and I've never looked back. It was absolutely the best choice for me, and my first two years on campus have by far exceeded my expectations. However, this does not mean that early decision should become the rule rather than the exception.

When I was admitted to the class of 2016, application numbers soared and the number of ED applicants had increased by 15 percent. My fellow ED students and I made up 40 percent of our freshman class when we arrived on campus. This school year, 45 percent of the class of 2018 was admitted through early decision, meaning that before regular decision applications were even due, nearly half of the class had already been decided.

Northwestern is not alone in this trend. Other top universities with binding early decision programs reported increases in acceptance rates for the class of 2018. University of Pennsylvania accepted 25.3 percent of its incoming freshman class through early decision, a slight increase from last year, Dartmouth accepted 40 percent, and Duke accepted 47 percent, which seems to be one of the highest rates out there, topping even Northwestern. Brown also showed a relatively (compared to what? Other schools or previous years?) high acceptance rate for early decision students at 18.9 percent this year. Not a significant increase, but still notable.

What is most concerning about these numbers is not the relative increase over time, but the growing divide between regular decision and early decision acceptance rates at some of the country's best universities. In 2013, Northwestern had an overall acceptance rate of 14 percent. According to Christopher Watson, the dean of undergraduate admissions at Northwestern, overall acceptance rates are expected to fall to 12-13 percent this year, compared to the 32 percent rate experienced by their early decision peers. Last year, Duke's regular decision acceptance rate was one third of its early decision rate, dropping from 30 percent to 10 percent. It's increasing gaps like these that are changing the college application process as we know it.

While I understand the motive to reward students for committing early on, is it fair to trade the right to make an educated decision for an easier way into your top choice?

It seems to me for many, the answer is yes. That was my reasoning, too -- I knew for certain that I wanted to go to Northwestern and my endless research had convinced me that applying early decision would up my chances of getting in. I'll never know if I would have been accepted through regular decision, but with early decision, I still faced the stress of not knowing how much financial aid I would receive from a college I had committed to regardless. A non-binding decision would have also allowed me to compare this offer to offers from other schools.

For anyone with limited income to fork over for college, tuition and financial aid packages are huge factors in deciding what university to attend. No, I'm not under the impression that Northwestern would have dragged me to campus against my will had my family not been able to afford the price allotted to us. But it's certainly worth considering the possibility of different aid packages from other, comparable schools that I will never know existed.

While financial aid is one of the most pressing complaints against binding early decision programs, there are other reasons that the rapidly-growing early decision pools and rates are not necessarily a good thing. While universities often cite statistics touting the diversity and high achievement of their early decision classes, it's hard to believe that when choosing from a comparatively smaller applicant pool, the makeup of the student body will accurately represent the quality or diversity of the applicants who might apply later on or be torn between two or more schools.

At my public high school in the suburbs of Ohio, teachers and guidance counselors never told me about the possible benefits of early decision, nor, to my knowledge, any of my classmates. A few friends and I decided on our own to go the early decision route and were accepted to the schools of our choice. But the lack of direction at my high school, which I consider to be a good public institution, makes me question how widespread the knowledge of early decision programs actually is, and how much it varies between schools across the country. While it's certainly possible to navigate the college decision process without help, students who are not advised about the benefits of early decision by their schools are at a disadvantage, and setting your sights completely on one school right off the bat might seem frightening without an educator's advice. While I'm not one to advocate prioritizing diversity over the overall quality of an applicant, Universities should consider possible differences between applicant pools from early and regular decision.

Early decision programs can reward the ability to make a decision you'd bet your money on -- quite literally. But what about those who aren't quite ready to make a decision when the early deadlines role around, or simply don't want to? The increase in early decision pools and acceptance numbers are slowly taking the college selection process out of the hands of the student and putting it into the hands of the university.

Yes, schools like Northwestern can boast falling acceptance rates and "increasingly diverse" classes because the university can now pick and choose more freely out of its regular decision pool and count on the nearly half of its freshman class that are already committed. But it isn't really the fates of universities that should be prioritized during the college selection process, it's the students, even those who don't have their minds made up by the fall of senior year.
Early decision can be a great option for some, but if these trends continue, students may see it as their only way into a top university, and limit both themselves and incoming classes as well.