top college admissions

Is Early Decision Unfair?


A Washington, D.C.-based think tank called Education Reform Now (ERN) recently released a data-filled analysis of the Early Decision (ED) process and its effect on underrepresented students. Their finding is that Early Decision is unfair to low-income students. Given the mission of ERN, which is to “promote innovative reforms, particularly for students of color and students from low-income families,” the outcome of the report might have been expected. But it is not wrong. Early Decision is more beneficial to colleges than students, especially low-income students. The interesting part of the report is the stats that ERN collected, which show in detail just how the wealthy use ED to their advantage and how colleges happily lock in these students, filling a good portion of their classes with ED applicants, even at some public universities. Some of the findings from the study include:

- Students who attended independent private high schools were more than 3.5 times more likely to apply ED than public school students.

- Applicants from the wealthiest ZIP codes were twice as likely to apply ED than all other applicants.

- International applicants (who typically pay full fare) were almost three times more likely to apply ED than US residents

Early Decision is more beneficial to colleges than students, especially low-income students.

As ERN pointed out, there is imperfect data available about colleges’ Early Decision results, as colleges are not required to provide disaggregated admissions data to the US Department of Education (a recommendation that the authors suggest). But based on the available data, ERN was able to point out a number of schools that heavily rely on ED applicants to fill their classes:

- Even with limited data, ERN identified at least ten highly selective colleges that fill over 60% of their class with ED applicants, including Emory, WashU, Swarthmore, and Middlebury. The actual number of colleges that fill this many seats with ED applicants is much higher.

- Certain colleges filled almost their entire class from the ED pool, including Bates College (81%) and Pitzer College (79%). Just five years prior, Pitzer was pulling in just 44% in the ED round.

- Acceptance rates in the ED round were much higher at certain colleges (which we know), including Bates (46% ED vs. 10% RD), Grinnell (65% ED vs. 17% RD), and American University (83% ED vs. 36% RD).

ERN eventually concedes that given the benefit to colleges, Early Decision is not likely to go away. For highly competitive colleges, it is a chance to lock in strong candidates and avoid competing with other schools. For the handful of colleges that meet the full financial need without loans, there is no disadvantage to students applying ED to these schools (if you believe that the schools are indeed need-blind, too). But for many of the highly selective colleges that extensively use ED and do not meet full financial need, it puts low-income students at a massive disadvantage in the early round.

Tim Brennan
December 1, 2022
schedule your
free consultation
sign up
college admissions newsletter
Get all the news and analysis on highly selective college admissions.
Your privacy is very important to us. Read our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.