Each year, many high school seniors across the U.S. send their early decision applications to try to secure coveted spots at highly competitive colleges. The early decision process – which provides ways for colleges to identify passionate applicants and give them better chances of admission – is often presented as a win-win for schools and students. However, in 2020, many higher education institutions have seen drops in the number of students applying for early decision. Although it is difficult to determine the exact reason for this decline, there may be a silver lining to this news.
Low-Income Students Are Less Likely To Apply Early
Wealth disparities often prevent low-income students from taking advantage of binding early decision college enrollment programs, because they are more likely to have to consider competing financial aid packages when choosing college programs. In 2016, the median household wealth, the total value of assets minus the total value of outstanding liabilities, for African-American and Hispanic households were $17,600 and $20,700, respectively, compared to $171,000 for white non-Hispanic households. This racial wealth gap increases dependence on financial aid in communities of color. This year, only 10% of early applicants were African-American, and only 11% were Hispanic. According to Education Reform Now, “Early admissions programs provide wealthy, mostly white students an edge for acceptance to competitive schools.”
Early Decision Policies Reduce Financial Aid Opportunities
The binding nature of the early decision policy, which means that students must attend the college if accepted, may remove incentives for higher education institutions to court students through financial aid packages. As a result, most students who apply via early decision apply with the confidence that their families can cover the costs of attending college. For many low-income and minority students, confidence that they can cover expensive college costs is not necessarily the case. Therefore, underserved students are essentially priced out of early decision. A study done by The Cooke Foundation reported that only 16% of high-achieving students from families with annual incomes below $50,000 applied for college admission on an early-decision basis in the 2013-14 academic year. However, 29% of high-achieving students from families with incomes above $250,000 applied on an early-decision basis.
Early Decision Policies Affect Campus Diversity
Universities with early decision policies are more likely to have student bodies that are wealthier and less racially diverse than schools without these policies. The lack of overall cohort diversity may have negative implications if universities have fewer spots available for regular decision applicants, who are more likely to be in the middle to lower classes. To expand access to educational opportunity, in 2006, Harvard University ended its early decision program and now uses a nonbinding restrictive early action policy, which means that students can apply to other colleges and universities, but are restricted from applying to other private universities’ early action and early decision programs. Likewise, in 2007, the University of Virginia ended its early decision policy and reported increased class diversity and academic accomplishment.
While the decline in early decision applicants appear negative on the surface, this shift opens up many opportunities for higher education institutions to expand diversification on their campuses.
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