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Early admissions to colleges help kids who don't need it

Stanford is one of many top colleges with higher admissions rates under early decision.
Stanford is one of many top colleges with higher admissions rates under early decision.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

With the earliest college application deadlines looming, here's some good news for students already filling out their forms: applying early really could help you get in.

The statistics show that colleges are more likely to accept students who apply through early decision or early action programs than they are to accept students who apply later. Skeptics have often retorted that this is only because it's the motivated, qualified applicants who apply early. But researchers have found that this only explains part of the difference in acceptance rates — applying early really does seem to give you a boost.

Early admissions are good for individual students. But they're not necessarily good for society.

These programs tend to give the biggest benefit to the students who least need it. They exacerbate economic inequality at top colleges. And they're probably here to stay: Harvard and Princeton tried to start a trend by abandoning early admission in 2008, only to quickly back down a few years later.

It's easier to get in through early admissions programs

More than 450 colleges offer an early application option, and they come in two types: early decision (in which students agree to attend if they are accepted) and early action (which doesn't require that commitment and just let students know early whether they're accepted or not).

Early decision programs are often seen as particularly problematic, because they require students to decide whether to attend a college without knowing whether they'll get any financial aid or scholarships. Since the average sticker price of a private four-year college is more than $33,000 — and at some top-ranked colleges, it's more than $60,000 — making that commitment can be daunting for all but the wealthiest families.

Acceptance rates during early admission cycles are higher. For this fall's freshman class, Harvard accepted 6 percent of applicants, but 19 percent of applicants who applied early. The University of Pennsylvania admitted 10 percent of applicants, but 25 percent of students who applied for early decision.

early decision admission chart

These early-decision programs help colleges, who would prefer to admit students who will actually attend. And they help the students who apply: The boost from an early application is equivalent to an additional 100 points on the SAT, according to estimates by Christopher Avery, a Harvard professor of public policy, and Jonathan Levin, a Stanford economist.

Avery and Levin, who studied the high school class of 2000, found that at the most highly ranked colleges — Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford and MIT — the early admission pool tended to be better-qualified than the regular admission pool. But at colleges just below the very top, early applicants were actually less qualified, and they were still admitted at higher rates.

Early admissions programs cater to students from well-off backgrounds

The advantages of early admission accrue to students who have plenty of advantages already. Research has found that students from white, well-educated, well-off families are more likely to apply early than their peers from disadvantaged backgrounds. Students who apply early are more likely to have received private college counseling, to attend high schools with greater counseling resources, and to have followed a rigorous curriculum.

Some colleges, such as the University of Pennsylvania, also give heavy preferences to the children of alumni during the early admission process. Meanwhile, low-income students are underrepresented at these selective colleges

For their part, colleges are aware of concerns that early admissions programs worsen inequality. But they've been reluctant to overhaul the system. Harvard and Princeton both ended their early-decision programs in 2008, arguing that doing so would help level the playing field for all their applicants. But both schools changed their minds and adopted early action admissions a few years later, in 2011, after other colleges failed to follow their lead.

Harvard claims its early action applicants don't get an edge over everyone else, and the college's director of admissions has urged applicants to take as long as they need to choose a college. But its decision to offer early admissions at all underlines how dominant the sped-up calendar has become in the college application race.

Why early admission programs are here to stay — even though they shouldn't be

Early admissions programs are a salve for the defining feature of the college admissions process: anxiety. Colleges are anxious about prospective freshman classes that are too big (leading to overcrowded dorms) or too small (leading to less tuition revenue than expected). Students are anxious about getting in. And the idea of having all of this settled before high school seniors even finish their fall semester is appealing to both sides.

Granted, early admissions programs are far from the biggest inequality in college access. Just 16 percent of low-income students with high eighth-grade test scores end up attending highly selective colleges. No matter when students apply, the playing field is tilted toward high schools with more resources, families with more wealth, and parents with a better understanding of how college works.

But ending early admissions and making everyone apply later in the school year might help make it just a little more equal. (A much less serious side benefit would be staving off senioritis; at least first-semester grades for college seniors would still be important.)

Still, it won't happen. College admissions and financial aid are filled with practices that aren't in students' or society's best interests. Colleges participate in the mindless arms race of the US News rankings. They spend their financial aid on wealthy, high-achieving students rather than poorer ones. They price their education in the most confusing and opaque way possible.

College leaders will say that they don't necessarily like any of this. But few have the courage to face the consequences of unilateral disarmament.

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