College applications in the US - Early Admissions

This is the second in a series of posts about the college admissions process in the US. You can read the first post in the series, a general discussion of the landscape, here. Today I am going to talk about early admissions policies at selective colleges.

There are basically three kinds of early admissions programs. Under binding early decision (ED) programs, the student commits to withdrawing all other applications and attending a college if admitted. Under early admissions (EA) programs, students signal a keen interest in a college but do not have to commit to attend the college if admitted. Under rolling admissions programs, colleges start admitting students early in the year, then keep admitting students until a class is filled. Rolling admissions programs are non-binding. Large state universities often use rolling admissions programs.

If college admissions are a geologically active landscape, Early Decision is one of its volcanoes. Parents and students have learned that applying early under a binding ED program can increase the chances of admission, and academic studies bear this insight out. But students who are admitted to more than one college, in the spring, can pick among (or negotiate) financial aid awards, an option that is foreclosed under binding ED programs. Since students applying to early may get a significant admissions advantage,* that's a significant trade-off. 

Thus whether to apply early, and where, are two important decisions applicants make early in the fall of senior year. But it's not a simple decision. The book “The Early Admissions Game: Joining the Elite” (2003) by Avery, Fairbanks, and Zeckhauser makes clear that despite the admissions advantage, simply applying early does not necessarily increase a student’s chances of acceptance. The authors advise: look for a good match and understand that their key insight is that “applicants stand to gain most from applying early when they have moderate chances of admission in the regular process.” If a student has only a poor chance of admission in the regular process, then applying early will not help; if the student has a good chance of getting in during the regular process, then he or she will probably be admitted later in the spring. 

So the application has to be to the right school that is a good match for the student. And on top of all the other challenges, extremely selective colleges keep changing the game. Yale and the University of Chicago have non-binding Early Action programs. In 2006, Harvard and Princeton ended their early decision programs. In 2011, they reinstated them, as non-binding Early Action programs.

What is happening this year? The New York Times reports an increase in the number of early applications in the fall of 2011; Bloomberg News reports a decrease in the overall number of applications. It appears that Harvard and Princeton’s reinstatement of Early Action programs may have resulted in fewer applications to other Ivy League schools. On the other hand, because of its reinstated program and its outreach efforts, Harvard reported greater diversity in its early action applications in the fall of 2011 than it had seen in the past:
Compared with the Class of 2011, when 4,010 applied early, African-Americans now comprise 9.1 percent of the pool, a 61 percent increase; Latinos comprise 9.1 percent, a 31 percent increase; Native Americans make up 1.1 percent, a 29 percent increase; and financial aid applicants are nearly 72 percent of the pool, a 9.4 percent increase.   
It may be that two new trends are becoming evident: more students may be applying early, and they may not be applying to as many colleges overall. That number is still to come.  (Unfortunately I cannot seem to format this footnote properly.)*About that advantage. Avery, Fairbanks, and  Zeckhauser put it this way in “The Early Admissions Game”:
Applying early provides a significant admissions advantage, approximately equivalent to the effect of a jump of 100 points in SAT-1 score. Applying early to an ED school provides a slightly larger advantage than applying early to an EA college.  . . . Moreover, we find that the claim made by some colleges that the pool of early applicants is much stronger than the pool of regular applicants is part exaggeration and part myth. Early applicants have slightly higher test scores and high school class ranks than regular applicants at the most selective EA colleges, but early applicants tend to be slightly weaker in these qualifications than regular applicants to ED colleges.

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