Who Really Benefits From Early Decision in College Admissions?

While offering some advantages to competitive applicants, early decision primarily benefits the institutions themselves and hampers diversity efforts.

July 6, 2022 · Updated on July 15, 2022

Edited by Darlene Earnest
Who Really Benefits From Early Decision in College Admissions?
Admissions Opinion & Analysis

  • Early admissions programs have grown in popularity, especially among selective colleges.
  • Acceptance rates in early rounds are often two or three times higher than in regular-decision rounds.
  • Those figures are inflated by the number of recruited athletes who enter via early admissions.
  • Critics note that students who take advantage of early decision tend to be white and wealthy.

Bad news on the Bayou for would-be Tulane University students: Your chances of getting in are growing ever slimmer.

Only a few years ago, Tulane accepted almost a third of applicants. For the class of 2026, it accepted 8.4%.

Maybe you should consider applying early.

Many selective schools report early admissions acceptance rates that are two or three times higher than corresponding rates for regular-decision rounds. But is it actually easier to get in if you apply early?

And who, exactly, benefits more from early decision programs — students or colleges?

The Growing Popularity of Early Admissions

Early admissions programs have been around for decades, tracing their origins to Ivy League schools during the 1950s. They gained popularity in the 1990s, as dozens of colleges — selective and otherwise — adopted such programs.

Recently, as competition for admission to America's most selective colleges has reached a fever pitch and acceptance rates have dropped to all-time lows, high school students have sought any possible edge to increase their chances of getting in.

Bari Norman, co-founder and head counselor at Expert Admissions, a firm that helps students and their families navigate the college admissions process, said "close to 100%" of their clients apply to at least one college early.

"We know that, strategically, in almost every instance, applying early is to your advantage," Norman told BestColleges.

Early admission programs do promise some level of statistical advantage, at least to the untrained eye. Harvard, for example, accepted 7.9% of early applicants to its class of 2026 but only 3.19% overall. Similarly, Yale accepted 10.9% during the early round and only 4.46% of the overall applicant pool.

“Research shows that applying early to a selective institution equates to an increase of 100 points on the SAT.”

At Columbia, those figures were 10.1% and 3.73%, respectively. And at Dartmouth, they were 21% and 6.243%.

The University of Pennsylvania accepted 14.9% of early applicants for its class of 2025 and just 5.9% of the pool overall. The acceptance rate for students applying during the regular-decision round was 4.4%.

Research shows that applying early to a selective institution equates to an increase of 100 points on the SAT.

Seeing these relatively inflated figures offers applicants a glimmer of hope. As a result, the number of early applications has soared. From fall 2019 to fall 2020, the number of early applicants to Harvard rose from 6,424 to 10,086. Though, in fall 2021, that figure dropped to 9,406. A few fellow Ivies also reported slight dips compared to last year's totals, but generally these figures are trending up.

Yale's 2021 pool included 7,288 early applicants, its second-highest total ever. Likewise, Dartmouth's 2021 pool was its second-largest ever, and early applications to the school have increased 67% over the past decade. Brown experienced an all-time high number of early applicants last year.

This phenomenon isn't limited to the Ivy League. Colgate University's fall 2021 early pool represented a 31.8% increase over the previous year. The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill saw an increase of 10% between 2019 and 2020, and the University of Virginia experienced a 38% growth during that same period.

At Vanderbilt University, early decision applications have increased by 40% over the past five years and by 78% over the past decade.

Tulane implemented its early decision program in 2016. In its first year, 1,000 students applied via that route. That number tripled within five years. For the class entering this fall, only 106 students out of more than 46,000 total applicants were admitted during the regular-decision round.

These days, many private colleges are filling half or more of their entering classes through early admission. Among Penn's latest entering class, 51% were early decision admits.

Athletic Recruits Inflate Acceptance Rates

The relatively high early acceptance rates among the Ivies and other competitive schools can be misleading, however. That's because the pool of admitted students includes recruited athletes, who often are accepted early.

"We work with recruited athletes every single year," Norman said, "and they all go through early decision."

How many slots do recruited athletes take?

Let's look at Brown, for example. The university reserves more than 200 spots for recruited athletes. According to College Zoom, these athletes accounted for 28.7% of the early decision offers for Brown's class of 2021. Adjusting for these recruits, says College Zoom, drops that year's early acceptance rate at Brown from 21.9% to 15.6%.

Dartmouth is quite transparent about this discrepancy.

"Keep in mind that the published higher percentage of applicants accepted early is somewhat misleading because it includes recruited Division I athletes, whose credentials have been reviewed in advance," the college's website notes. "With recruited athletes removed from the Early Decision numbers, the statistical advantage isn't as large."

At Harvard, recruited athletes constitute about 10% of the incoming class. Although it's not clear if all of them enter via the early admission route, Norman's experience bears this out.

"All of my athletes at Harvard have gone through early action," she said.

This tactic exists well beyond the Ivy League. Davidson College, for example, admits 125-135 recruited athletes through early decision, notes The Washington Post, accounting for roughly a quarter of its incoming class. And at Colgate University, 80 of the 824 students admitted early in 2018 were recruited athletes.

Early Admissions Skews White and Wealthy

Spots reserved for athletes at the Ivies and other elite private colleges are most often filled by white students, many of whom come from wealthy families, according to a 2018 analysis in the Atlantic Monthly.

At the time, among the Ivies, 65% of athletes were white. At elite Division III colleges such as Amherst and Williams, that figure was 79%.

"College sports at elite schools are a quiet sort of affirmative action for affluent white kids," the article posits, "and play a big role in keeping these institutions so stubbornly white and affluent."

In last year's entering class at Harvard, 82.9% of first-year recruited athletes were white, noted The Harvard Crimson. Only 10.3% were Black. Moreover, among recruited athletes in the university's class of 2022, 46.3% came from households with incomes exceeding $250,000, compared to one-third of the class overall.

That lack of diversity isn't apparent just among athletes, however. It's endemic to early admissions across the board.

Last year, says the Common Application, 60% of students who submitted applications early came from the most affluent 20% of ZIP codes nationally. That pool included only 5% from the bottom quintile.

"Students who apply via early decision are often wealthier than those who apply via regular deadlines," says a 2021 report from the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP), "and they are more likely to be admitted, especially at the most selective institutions."

Why is this the case?

For one, students in less-affluent communities often attend schools lacking adequate counseling resources to help them navigate the admissions process. As first-generation college-goers, they don't have guidance from family members, either. They often don't know early options exist. And if they do, they might find the process rather confusing given the subtle distinctions between early decision I and II, early action, restrictive early action, and regular decision.

A more significant factor hampering low-income students is that they cannot compare financial aid awards, particularly under early decision programs.

“Students who apply via early decision are often wealthier than those who apply via regular deadlines, and they are more likely to be admitted, especially at the most selective institutions.”

— 2021 report from the Institute for Higher Education Policy

Unlike early action or "restrictive" early action programs — offered by Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford — early decision programs are binding, meaning students must apply to only one school and commit to accepting an admission offer. Numerous elite colleges — including all the other Ivies — use early decision.

For students seeking to make college decisions based on financial aid, early decision is a poor choice. Norman says it's difficult to know if students in the early round get more or less financial aid given that each institution operates under its own set of rules. But she does acknowledge the lack of flexibility inherent in early decision programs.

"There's definitely a disadvantage to applying early if you have to take into consideration financial aid," she said.

Families less concerned about financial aid might, therefore, encourage their children to apply early, which skews the demographic toward white and wealthy. Students from affluent families apply early at nearly twice the rate of low-income students with similar academic credentials.

"Early admissions policies are rigging the system against students from low-income backgrounds, students of color, and first-generation students," the IHEP report concludes.

Much like legacy admissions programs, then, early admissions runs counter to the elite university rhetoric around diversity, access, and equity. Perhaps that's why the two are commingled in a New York state bill seeking to eliminate both practices at the state's public and private colleges.

Who Benefits More From Early Admissions — Students or Colleges?

Early admissions programs do offer students some benefits. Those who gain early admission to their first-choice school can avoid much of the angst-inducing college application process. And despite the recruited athlete figures, applying early does offer some modicum of advantage compared to the lower acceptance rates in the regular-decision rounds.

Norman said she counsels her clients to apply to at least one college early action (non-binding) because "there really is no downside."

"You should be heading toward March with something in your back pocket so you don't potentially feel like, 'Oh my God, I could actually have nothing,'" she said.

At the same time, Norman believes early admissions programs are designed to benefit colleges more than students.

“With a sizable percentage of the incoming class already in place, colleges can cherry-pick applicants in the larger pool who round out the class in various ways.”

Binding early decision programs, in particular, contribute to greater yield figures (the percentage of students who accept admissions offers), making them appear more desirable. Admitting a large percentage of students in the early round also leaves fewer spots in the regular-decision round, when more students apply. As a result, overall acceptance rates decline, which boosts rankings such as those at U.S. News & World Report.

And with a sizable percentage of the incoming class already in place, colleges can cherry-pick applicants in the larger pool who round out the class in various ways. Ultimately, Norman says, it offers institutions greater control over the admissions process, which has become even more unpredictable following the onset of the pandemic.

"It's always been in the colleges' interests to have early decision," she said, "and it's always only been in a small percentage of students' interests to have it."