Early decision admission rates may skew student’s perceptions of chances

by Mike Rempter
Among countless statistics thrown around regarding college admissions are numbers suggesting that applying to a school early decision (ED) increases the chances of being admitted. However, early decision might not provide the advantages a quick comparison of acceptance rates indicates, though it can end up limiting a student’s options.

Early decision requires students to submit applications to a school months before the regular decision application deadline. By applying through this process, the student agrees to attend the school if admitted and if the financial aid offer meets the student’s financial needs. Unlike regular decision, early decision applicants also agree not to apply early to other schools and so cannot compare potential financial aid packages.
Universities such as Lehigh and Tulane report acceptance rates for early decision candidates as much as 40 percent higher than for regular decision applicants (inlikeme.com); however, a true analysis would consider additional factors.
“Based on percentages of acceptances, you’ll find that it is statistically better to apply ED. But this does not take into account that many recruited athletes are admitted ED,” said Mark A. Montgomery, president of Montgomery Education Consulting, explaining how those rates of admission are inflated.
The reported rates also fail to indicate the higher academic strength of the early applicant pool. “Higher admission rates for ED applicants may correlate to stronger profiles among candidates choosing ED,” said the College Board, supporting the observation that exceptionally high-achieving high school seniors are traditionally more likely to apply to the most selective colleges via the early decision process.
This correlation is noted by Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Christoph Guttentag of Duke University, which filled 44 percent of openings in the class of 2017 from the early decision pool. “This year there were considerably more students whose applications were compelling,” said Guttentag on the website DukeSpeak.
Recent surges in the number of early decision applicants, along with media coverage of the related acceptance rates,­­ have put colleges on the defensive about the practice. Most colleges state that their standards are not any lower for early decision applicants than for regular decision applicants.
“A candidate to whom we otherwise would not offer admission is not going to be accepted simply because he or she applied under the early decision program,” said  Columbia University’s Office of Admissions on  the Columbia University website.
Such disclaimers result from criticism by teachers and counselors around the country who say the early decision process mostly benefits the colleges: schools can fill the freshman class much earlier with students obligated to attend, and possibly with fewer financial aid needs.
However, most experts agree that applying early does make sense in certain situations. If a college is a student’s clear top choice and the potential financial aid package is not a major factor, applying early decision is a good option, especially for students with strong academic resumes.
Senior Scott Flanzman took that into consideration when applying to Northwestern University, where he was accepted. “Since I knew 100 percent that I wanted to go to Northwestern, it only made sense to apply early,” said Flanzman, who is currently ranked in the top five of this year’s graduating class.
Despite possible drawbacks for students, colleges are likely to continue to promote early decision. In fact, after dropping the option in 2007 out of concerns that it gave wealthy students an unfair advantage, Harvard, Princeton and the University of Virginia have recently reinstated a less restrictive version of early decision.
“It’s fair for the colleges to fill their classes with early decision applicants. They want assured attendance,” said senior Nick Demmel, who was accepted to Syracuse University early.