The ‘Early Decision’ Decision

Early admissions applications are becoming ever more prominent. This last December, Ivy College Prep, LLC helped students get accepted into Notre Dame early action (EA), and Brown, early decision (ED). Under early action (EA), the admitted applicant is free to apply to any other school and has until May 1st to make a final decision. Early Decision (ED), on the other hand, binds: if accepted the applicant’s admissions process is over. Contention around early programs, especially ED, arose when studies indicated that applicants from wealthier families benefited most by applying early.  In response, Harvard, Princeton, and the University of Virginia discontinued their early programs in 2007. Many college counselors, at the time, believed that if Harvard ended early admissions, it would reverberate among the Ivy League and beyond, reducing the institutional pressures for early admissions programs. They were wrong.   

Not only did Harvard, Princeton, and University of Virginia reintroduce EA programs last November, but ED programs are now stronger than ever. Many selective schools take a third to almost half of their class through ED: Brown (37%), Columbia (45%), Cornell (37%), Dartmouth (42%), Duke (38%), Johns Hopkins (45%), Middlebury (45%), Northwestern (39%), and the University of Pennsylvania (47%) to name but a portion. The popularity of ED is hard to contest.  James Fallows of the Atlantic Monthly, in his article, The Early Decision Racket, has some qualms: “Early decision, or ED, is an arranged marriage: both parties gain security at the expense of freedom. But the loss is asymmetrical, constraining the student much more than the institution. That is why many counselors view ED as a device promoted by colleges for their own purposes, with incidental benefits to other institutions and companies—but not to students.” (

University of Pennsylvania, since the baby bust years of the 1990s, has mastered the art of ED. Over the last two decades, it regularly sets in place the foundation of its entering classes through ED. The class leaders are selected, key musicians, athletes, and students who will anchor specific disciplines all are ‘bound’ during ED. Even more telling, legacy is only considered during ED by Pennsylvania’s admissions office. If alum children are not dedicated fully to the school, then Penn does not feel obligated to offer special consideration during the regular admissions process.

To schools such as Pomona College or Duke, the value of binding students who have made them their first choice, is valuable. Generally, these students know the college well and, they want to attend: they’re happy with their choice. Furthermore, admitting applicants through ED improves each school’s yield rate (the number of students who attend out of those who are admitted) rate: every student accepted attends. Yield rate factors prominently into the US News rankings, which, though often denigrated by college counselors, affects future application volume, alumni donations, pride among the students and faculty, even, the cost of borrowing money by the institution. Bond rating firms such as Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s, when rating bonds of educational institutions review the school’s US News ranking, and even the median SAT scores of admitted classes. An increase in student yield may translate into savings of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

On the other hand, from the standpoint of the student, ED is not such a bargain. More than likely it’s the exact opposite. Because other schools have not offered the student financial aid packages, the school often feels little need to be aggressive with its financial aid offerings.

Regardless, if you are a recruited athlete, a legacy, a Sanskrit scholar, or all the above, then applying ED to a school you know well and like makes sense. Otherwise, applying ED limits your access to financial aid, commits you to a place that you might not like, and surrenders your ability to search and consider many other fine institutions during the admissions process. It probably shouldn’t be called a racket, but it certainly doesn’t provide much to the student other than the safety of a prearranged marriage, and what type of decision is that?