Early decision on the rise, but at what cost to college access?

With more students submitting early-decision applications and university admissions offices adding a second round of the binding decisions, some observers have voiced concerns that the programs primarily benefit wealthy students who can commit to a school before comparing financial aid packages.

According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, colleges saw the number of early-decision applicants—students who pledge to enroll, in exchange for earlier consideration and notification—and the percentage of students admitted via early decision grow by an average of 4 percent and 5 percent, respectively, between fall 2016 and fall 2017. And some schools—including Tulane University, Colorado College, and Lehigh University—have added new Early Decision II options in which applicants who applied in the general admissions pool receive an email asking if they want to change their plans and commit to the school, if admitted, before receiving the school’s decision or financial aid package, The Wall Street Journal reports.

Benefits driving uptick in early-decision

Early-decision programs benefit colleges by guaranteeing enrollments in a competitive market, and some schools now draw more than half of their incoming freshmen classes from the early-decision applicant pool.

Binding early-decision programs—as well as early-action programs, a non-binding approach—also benefit students with higher chances of admission than the general applicant pool, Inside Higher Ed notes. (Georgetown University’s Early Action program is grounded in the belief that students should be free to choose among colleges and is non-binding to prevent that excess pressure.)

Socioeconomic discrepancies in applicant pools

Critics, meanwhile, object to early-decision programs’ requirement that students pull their applications to other schools, thereby locking them into the early-decision school’s financial aid package, or lack thereof, without being able to compare options. As a result, many of the students benefiting from higher acceptance rates are those with the most financial security who can afford to take that risk. A 2016 analysis by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation and the Century Foundation found that, among high-achieving students, 29 percent of students from wealthy families applied early decision, compared to 16 percent of students from lower-income families. “In short, low-income students are half as likely to apply early, even though doing so would dramatically increase their likelihood of admission,” the analysis stated.

At the same time, students who rely on financial aid may feel pressured to gamble on their dream school and overextend their budget. Sara Harberson, a private admissions counselor in Lancaster, Pa., told The Wall Street Journal that, with the emergence of Early Decision II programs, it seems that schools are “tapping into the students’ own vulnerabilities to benefit themselves.” Inside Higher Ed adds that for the second-round programs, “admit rates tend to be quite low, prompting many last-minute applications to other institutions.”

Mark Hatch, Colorado College’s vice president for enrollment, said “a lot of the criticism is not off the mark,” but said he doesn’t think the criticism will stall the programs in any way.

Counteracting the wealth advantage

Several schools, such as Yale University and Emory College, are trying to make early-decision programs more accessible to a wider array of students by partnering with QuestBridge, a nonprofit that works with high-achieving, low-income high school students—individuals who typically would receive significant aid through the general admissions process. QuestBridge helps students apply without fear, assuring them that if they match with an early-admissions program, they will receive a full scholarship.

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