Last week, a survey of the National Association for College Admission Counseling found that colleges and universities are increasing the number of students admitted through early admissions programs. This development is highly disturbing, especially in light of a new study, published in Teachers College Record, highlighting the inequity of the practice, which is employed at many institutions.
According to the NACAC report, State of College Admission 2010, 65 percent of colleges and universities reported increases in the number of students admitted through “early decision,” a practice in which applicants apply early to one institution, and, if admitted, must commit to enrolling. The report also found that 73 percent of institutions reported increases in the number of students admitted through “early action” policies, under which students are admitted early but do not commit to attending.
Researchers, including Christopher Avery, Andrew Fairbanks, and Richard Zeckhauser, have long found that these practices tends to benefit white, wealthy and educated applicants, who receive an admissions boost equivalent to 100 SAT points. Critics have pointed out that early decision programs are particularly unfair to low-income applicants because the binding commitment to attend a particular college eliminates the ability to bargain between colleges for the most advantageous financial aid packages. The unfairness of these programs prompted Harvard, Princeton, and the University of Virginia to abandon the practice. But most other colleges and universities did not follow suit, and now polling suggests many institutions are actually increasing their reliance on early admissions.
Some institutions, such as Yale and Stanford, employ early action, rather than early decision, thus permitting low-income students to compare financial aid packages. But a new study by Julie J. Park of Miami University and M Kevin Eagan of the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute, finds that both early action and early decision programs raise troubling questions about equity given the makeup of the student population who have the cultural capital to know the advantages of applying early.
The study found not only that white and wealthier students were more likely to apply early; in addition, other factors mattered a great deal. Receiving private college counseling was the strongest predictor of enrolling through early admissions. In addition, attending a high school where each college-counselor has a manageable number of students increased the chances of students taking advantage of early admissions.
Importantly, while most previous research on early admissions has focused on a small number of elite institutions, Park and Eagan’s study, “Who Goes Early? A Multi-Level Analysis of Enrolling via Early Action and Early Decision Admissions,” employ a much larger national data set involving 88,086 students who came from 4,491 high schools and applied to 290 colleges and universities.
The authors point out that the policy of early admissions – like the policy of legacy preferences – defies the commitment of colleges to make “need blind” admissions. They write: “early decision in particular works as a sort of class-based affirmative action that gives wealthier applicants a ‘plus’ factor: a higher likelihood of being admitted than if they applied under the regular decision deadline.”
In rough economic times, it will be said that colleges and universities have to do what they can to make ends meet – including policies that indirectly preference wealthy candidates. The danger, however, is that even in better times, these programs will become embedded as regular practice. As Park and Eagan note, “At a minimum, institutions need to look inward and ask serious questions about the patterns of who applies and is accepted early, and the implications of offering advantages to students who generally already are advantaged in the admissions process.”