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In Defense of Early Decision


The two-pronged argument against Early Decision (ED) goes something like this:

1) ED forces kids to choose a college before they are ready, and 2) ED doesn’t allow kids to compare financial aid offers. There may be some truth to these arguments for some kids and for some colleges. But when it comes to the application process at the most highly selective colleges, we believe that both students and schools gain much more benefit from the ED process. Let us explain:

For those that need a refresher, remember that Early Decision is a binding commitment between college and student. If you apply to a college ED and it accepts you, you are bound to attend. Because of this, a student can only apply ED to a single school. This differs from Early Action and Restricted Early Action, in that if accepted early under one of these programs, you are not required to attend the school and can continue to apply to other schools in regular decision, making a choice later in the process.

Are Kids Really Not Ready to Choose a College?

If the traditional Early Decision deadline is November 1st and the traditional Regular Decision deposit date is May 1st, then that represents a six month extension of time for students to make a decision about what college is their first choice. Six months is not insignificant in the life of a teenager, but we believe that the benefit of matching students to their true first choice trumps this extra bit of time. Kids have to make a decision eventually about where they want to attend. So moving up the time period to Fall hardly seems too off-putting. Plus, students are still narrowing their choices even sooner than that. By Jan. 1st (just two months from the typical ED deadline), regular applications are due. So even if you don’t need to pick your ultimate destination until May 1st under regular decision, you’re still required to cut your list down quite a lot between Nov. 1st and Jan. 1st, or end up applying to too many schools (another problem with the frenzy of regular round).

We believe that colleges getting a greater percentage of kids that truly believe that it is their number one choice only benefits both the school and student. For colleges, they get more committed students. Ones that absolutely want to be there and have not made it a second choice. If you are a college, why not accept more qualified kids in the early round? If highly selective colleges really can fill their class 2-3 times over with kids of similar qualifications, why not choose qualified students who REALLY want to be there? And for students - don’t you want to be with other students who are unequivocal in their desire to attend that school? There is nothing more disheartening than hearing how many students preferred to go to another college but ended up at your school instead.  

By the way, this kind of first choice matching happens in other areas of education. In many locales, networks of schools ask kids to list their first choice high school in the network and then try to match them. This includes both public and private schools. Why colleges ignore the priority choice of students outside of early decision is curious. Wouldn't it make more sense to match qualified students who put a particular school as their first choice with that school? Six months would get lopped in this scenario, but it’s a six month that happens largely after the college search period.

Why do you want to take away the ability to compare financial offers across colleges?

Many counselors don’t like ED because kids are bound to accept an offer even before being able to compare financial aid offers. But is this a real concern at the nation’s most selective colleges? No, because the top schools offer to meet full financial need, without loans and do not offer merit aid. So, if you are a family with financial need, then any college that subscribes to meeting full need with no merit aid will behave in a way that is similar to other colleges with the same policy. If a family’s Expected Family Contribution (EFC) is $20,000 then, theoretically, this would cost that family $20K whether they went to Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Haverford or any other college that meets full financial need but does not offer merit aid.

We recognize that not all colleges can afford to meet full financial need without loans. But if those schools wanted to participate in a wider-ranging ED program, they could provide more insight into what a student would get in both need-based and merit-aid based money prior to that student choosing an ED choice. Arguably, these colleges would benefit the most from a more widespread ED component, since they often lose out to the more famous colleges who also offer ED.

We know that ED isn’t likely to take even more hold in the college admissions process, but we think it should. Giving parents and students more certainty earlier about both placement and cost might finally reduce the growing number of regular decision applications. It also might match more kids to the school they truly desire to attend.

Tim Brennan
July 6, 2021
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