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The Admissions Game

Posted on Feb 3, 2019 by

The Admissions Game

January 31, 2019

Almost all higher education institutions are tuition-dependent – some more, some less, but without students paying for higher education in the US, nearly every College and University would not exist.  To say that Enrollment Management is critical to institutional success, therefore, is an understatement. At this time of year, determining next year’s freshman cohort is consuming most admissions office staff.  According to reports from many of the nation’s institutions, however, a greater percentage of students have already been accepted through the early action and early decision processes than in the past.  Does that mean that regular decision students will compete for fewer overall spaces in the admissions class of 2023?  For many of the nation’s most elite/prestigious/highest ranked higher education institutions, YOU BET!

A recent article in Inside Higher Ed online reported that early action and early decision applications were up by as much as 41% reported by New York University during this admissions cycle, although the acceptance rates of students applying did not significantly increase from previous years, and in some cases went down.  Overall acceptance rates are higher for early decision applicants than regular decision applicants, and many of the most competitive institutions are admitting potentially more than half of their freshman class early.  Harvard, for example, announced last month that it admitted 935 students under its nonbinding early-action program, which equates to a 13.4 percent admit rate. Since Harvard has an over 80 percent yield rate, this will make up nearly half of their class assuming the class will be similar to last year’s 1,653 freshmen. It is simple math.  The more applications with the same acceptance rate mean less overall admissions spots for regular decision applicants.

The more interesting question is who are these students that are applying early action and early decision.  The Jack Kent Cook Foundation reported earlier this month that “Twenty-nine percent of high-achieving students from families making more than $250,000 a year applied early decision, compared with only 16 percent of high-achieving students from families with incomes less than $50,000. In short, low-income students are half as likely to apply early, even though doing so would dramatically increase their likelihood of admission.”*

Why? Given the efforts that many of the most prestigious institutions have gone through to make their admissions processes need-blind.  Most recently, Johns Hopkins University was given a 1.8 billion dollar gift from Michael Bloomberg to do just that.  Other top tier institutions have already been doing that for years.  But despite these and other efforts to make institutions more accessible to low-income and middle-income high-achieving students accessible, some institutions have filled nearly half of their incoming class already.  Ironically, because ED is binding, many students choose not to apply through this process because financial aid or merit award is not determined beforehand so that families can make an informed decision.  Does that mean that regular decision students, including the remaining 84% of lower-income students and 61% of higher income students, will be at a disadvantage?  For those institutions with high yield rates, such as Harvard University which is over 80 percent, yes.

From an institutional perspective, it is entirely understandable why early decision makes sense.  With competition for students being at an all-time high, I would want to lock in my incoming freshman class as soon as possible, and early decision allows many institutions to fill a good portion of their class by the end of December.  A larger early decision pool potentially boosts an institution’s yield rate and academic profile while decreasing the acceptance rate, all of which can lead to higher prestige and college rankings.

However, the early decision process is somewhat disconcerting to me personally because I have a son who is currently applying to several top tier schools for his undergraduate education. While our family is not in the lower income bracket, he chose not to apply early decision to his top choice school for the same reasons that other students do not.  Since we already have one child in college and have been through the financial aid process for the past several years, in addition to using the net price calculator on various institutional websites, we know that our options for financial aid are limited to loans.  However, our son will graduate salutatorian, and his accomplishments include:

  • An unweighted GPA of 4.0 in an International Baccalaureate program from a college preparatory high school.
  • A score of 35 on the ACT.
  • A perfect 800 on his SAT Math II subject test.
  • A three-sport varsity athlete and an all-conference quarterback who was a finalist for a state football award.
  • Earning the student service award each year in high school.

He is definitely NOT perfect, but he has worked very hard to achieve/succeed at this level and is a desirable student candidate for many of the top schools in the country, possibly earning a merit scholarship at some of them.  While his first choice school does not provide merit scholarships of any kind, we encouraged him to consider other schools based on the overall cost of an undergraduate education, which we believe to be part of a thorough decision-making process regardless of ability to pay.  Over four years, this could amount to six figures, or a significant down payment on a first home, right?

Many articles that I have read state that early decision unfairly favors wealthy applicants because applicants only receive their financial aid packages after they have been accepted and bound by early decision rules.  For those whose enrollment is contingent upon receiving enough aid to attend may be discouraged by this and won’t apply early decision.  I can certainly understand and agree with this, but I also believe that it may unfairly impact any students in the same way.  Just because a family can afford $70,000 per year for undergraduate education, doesn’t mean that it is a prudent use of financial resources.

I am interested to know what others think.  Does this trend toward more students applying and being admitted to more selective institutions nationwide during early decision mean that more and more institutions will follow suit like the U of Chicago did in 2016, and if so, what are the consequences for all students aspiring to attend the institution of their dreams?  Is regular decision becoming the application process for leftover students?  Continue the conversation,


*IHE “Popularity of Early Decision Continues to Grow” by Scott Jaschik January 7, 2019

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