A college-admissions edge for the wealthy: Early decision

Many of the nation’s top colleges draw more than 40 percent of their incoming freshmen through an early-application system that favors the wealthy, luring students to commit to enroll if they get in and shutting out those who want the chance to compare offers of grants and scholarships.

The binding-commitment path known as “early decision” fills roughly half of the freshman seats at highly ranked Vanderbilt, Emory, Northwestern and Tufts universities, as well as Davidson, Bowdoin, Swarthmore and Claremont McKenna colleges, among others, a Washington Post analysis found.

The Post found 37 schools where the early-decision share of enrolled freshmen in 2015 was at least 40 percent. At Duke University, the share was 47 percent, and at the University of Pennsylvania, it was 54 percent.

[Sortable table: See the details of the early decision advantage]

The rising influence of early-decision enrollment underscores a stark and growing divide in college admissions between the masses of students who apply to multiple schools through the “regular” process in quest of the best fit and deal and a privileged subset who apply early and simultaneously pledge to attend just one, without fear of cost, at a time when the sticker price for private schools often tops $60,000 a year. Call them the Shoppers and the Pledgers.

College admissions: The Early Decision advantage

Davidson College 638 48% 5,382 22% 510 61%
University of Pennsylvania 5,488 24% 37,268 10% 2,435 54%
Claremont McKenna College 675 27% 7,156 11% 343 54%
Emory University 2,437 30% 20,492 24% 1,357 53%
Middlebury College 961 33% 8,891 17% 589 53%
Tufts University 1,839 39% 19,063 16% 1,360 53%
Lafayette College 704 49% 7,465 30% 672 51%
Kenyon College 428 58% 7,076 24% 492 51%
Vanderbilt University 3,582 23% 31,464 12% 1,607 51%
Barnard College 748 43% 6,655 20% 635 51%
Connecticut College 347 70% 5,182 40% 482 50%
Northwestern University 2,667 38% 32,122 13% 2,018 50%
Colgate University 829 47% 8,724 27% 773 50%
Hamilton College 616 38% 5,434 25% 473 50%
Swarthmore College 567 36% 7,818 12% 407 50%
Washington and Lee University 577 39% 5,377 24% 454 50%
Bowdoin College 950 26% 6,790 15% 500 49%
Wesleyan University 960 39% 9,822 22% 787 47%
Duke University 3,048 27% 30,112 12% 1,745 47%
Bucknell University 830 53% 10,967 25% 938 47%
Lehigh University 999 58% 12,843 30% 1,261 46%
College of the Holy Cross 442 75% 6,595 37% 738 45%
Colorado College 875 30% 8,060 17% 583 45%
Williams College 593 41% 6,883 18% 551 44%
Pitzer College 405 29% 4,149 13% 267 44%
Pomona College 1,157 15% 8,099 10% 400 44%
Haverford College 323 46% 3,467 25% 346 43%
Dartmouth College 1,856 26% 20,507 11% 1,116 43%
Gettysburg College 444 68% 6,386 40% 699 43%
Carleton College 689 31% 6,722 21% 491 43%
Dickinson College 406 77% 6,031 47% 731 43%
New York University 8,459 29% 56,092 33% 5,917 42%
Union College 399 60% 5,996 38% 568 42%
Johns Hopkins University 1,866 29% 24,716 13% 1,299 42%
Wake Forest University 1,223 43% 13,281 29% 1,284 41%
University of Richmond 791 42% 9,977 31% 807 41%
Skidmore College 415 67% 8,508 36% 686 41%
Smith College 409 57% 5,006 38% 609 38%
Grinnell College 316 53% 6,414 25% 442 38%
Brown University 3,043 20% 30,396 9% 1,615 38%
Cornell University 4,560 26% 41,900 15% 3,180 38%
Bryn Mawr College 279 50% 2,890 39% 385 36%
Amherst College 483 36% 8,568 14% 477 36%
Oberlin College 520 54% 7,815 29% 778 36%
Harvey Mudd College 436 18% 4,119 13% 214 36%
College of William & Mary 1,070 50% 14,952 34% 1,518 36%
Washington University in St. Louis 1,652 37% 29,259 17% 1,731 36%
Whitman College 166 76% 3,790 43% 364 35%
Brandeis University 698 35% 10,528 34% 802 31%
Sewanee: University of the South 190 75% 4,509 41% 469 30%
Mount Holyoke College 321 50% 3,858 50% 532 30%
Rice University 1,389 20% 17,951 16% 969 29%
Wellesley College 375 44% 4,555 30% 595 28%
George Washington University 1,034 69% 19,837 46% 2,589 28%
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute 554 65% 17,752 42% 1,379 26%
Rhodes College 188 76% 4,666 47% 562 25%
St. Olaf College 245 73% 7,571 36% 763 24%
Macalester College 277 44% 6,030 39% 583 21%
Occidental College 255 41% 5,911 45% 517 20%
Centre College 100 68% 2,716 71% 379 18%
Furman University 126 94% 5,043 65% 672 18%
University of Miami 638 39% 33,415 38% 2,080 12%
DePauw University 69 75% 5,182 65% 596 9%
Northeastern University 773 31% 50,523 28% 2,797 9%

Nathan Hanshew, 17, a senior at Washington Latin Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., said he applied to a dozen schools but did not opt for early decision anywhere.

“That was too risky,” he said. “You’re stuck in a bond, like a marital bond.”

Shopping around paid off hugely for Hanshew, a Polish immigrant, who learned March 17 in a surprise announcement in front of cheering classmates that he won a full-ride scholarship from George Washington University.

Kate Morrison Kate Morrison (Family photo)
Kate Morrison, 17, a senior at Walt Whitman High School in Montgomery County, Md., said she was drawn to Bowdoin after a soccer coach there encouraged her to apply early. She visited the Maine college last spring. “I just loved it so much,” she said. “I was really, really content.” No athletic scholarship, no financial aid. But she applied early decision in the fall and was admitted Dec. 11. Her search was done.

This week, angst is cresting for traditional applicants as prestigious colleges finalize who’s in and who’s out. Ivy League decisions are scheduled to be released Thursday evening. But admitted early-decision students are tranquil; they’ve known for months where they’re going to college. Early-decision applicants also enjoy a crucial edge over the regulars: Their admission rates tend to be much higher. That’s because schools want good students who really want them, and they want to lock them down.

At Penn, the admission rate for early applicants was 24 percent for the class that entered in 2015. The total admission rate, early and regular, was 10 percent. Eric Furda, Penn’s dean of admissions, said the academic credentials of students who win early admission tend to be stronger than those admitted later in the cycle. Furda also said more early-decision students than ever are qualifying for need-based financial aid.

“This pool is becoming broader and deeper and more diverse than it’s ever been. It’s time to start telling that story,” Furda said. “I don’t want lower-income families to be told, ‘Don’t apply early decision because you’re going to need to compare financial-aid packages.'” These days, nearly as many early-decision freshmen receive need-based grants from Penn as their peers admitted in the regular cycle, he said.

The Post reviewed 2015 admissions data for 64 schools as reported through a questionnaire called the Common Data Set. The analysis covered top-60 schools on U.S. News and World Report lists of liberal arts colleges and national universities, and it found 48 schools in which early-decision admits comprised at least a third of the total enrolled class and 16 in which they comprised at least half.

[U.S. News college ranking trends 2015]

While most early-decision admits enroll, a few do not. The most common reason: If a financial aid offer is deemed insufficient, an admitted student may be released from their pledge.

Within the Ivy League, Penn appears to be the most aggressive user of the early process. The early-decision share of freshmen at Dartmouth College was about 43 percent. At Brown and Cornell universities, it was about 38 percent. Columbia University, which also uses early decision, is the only Ivy League school that refuses to make public its Common Data Set reports.

Harvard, Yale and Princeton universities also allow students to apply early, but they do not require admitted students to decide on enrollment until May 1. That technique, which enables comparison shopping, is known as “early action.” Stanford, the University of Chicago, MIT and hundreds of other schools use early action.

Georgetown University’s longtime dean of admissions, Charles Deacon, said he favors early action because students should be as sure in May of where they want to attend as they were in November. He calls it a “student-centered” approach to admissions, in contrast to “enrollment management” techniques in vogue at many schools.

“No matter what anybody tells you, the early pool favors those who are more advantaged,” Deacon said. “They’re the ones who have been better advised. They know more from their families. There’s an advantage, for sure, and that plays itself out particularly at the early level.”

Early decision, which developed gradually among elite schools from the late 1950s through the 1970s, has drawn criticism in recent years, earning a critique in a 2001 Atlantic article headlined “The Early-Decision Racket.” In 2006, the public University of Virginia announced that it was ending an early-decision program in an effort to attract more low-income students. It now uses early action.

“For us, the early-action plan makes the most sense,” U-Va. dean of admission Greg Roberts said. “And it’s more in line with our values and enrollment goals.” Most top-tier schools with early decision are private. An exception is the public College of William and Mary, in Virginia.

[Nation’s prominent public universities are shifting to out-of-state students]

Though some schools have spurned the practice, the volume of early-decision applications to elite schools is growing, and some of them are filling a larger share of their seats with those applicants, making it far more difficult to get in during the normal cycle.

At Williams College, a premier liberal arts school in Massachusetts, a little more than 40 percent of freshmen come through early decision. Williams President Adam Falk said early decision provides stability for the college in what can be a volatile market, and it provides peace of mind for successful applicants who can then leave “an insane-feeling rat race” during their senior year of high school.

Jon Reider, a former Stanford admissions officer who counsels students at San Francisco University High School, said that 15 years ago, early decision was not a central part of most of his advising conversations. Now it is. Another important variable is that ultra-selective Harvard, Princeton, Stanford and Yale are “single-choice” early-action schools, meaning that students may not apply early to any other private school, with few exceptions. So students must weigh their top choice carefully, and it can feel like making a life-altering gamble.

But the calculations are much more complex than a simple ranking of choice, Reider said. Sometimes admission to that first-choice school is so tough to obtain, even in an early application, that it makes more sense to apply early decision to a second choice, or even a third choice. “You’ve got one chip,” Reider said. “One card to play. It’s an absolutely crazy system.”

Even more bewildering: Some schools offer two rounds of early decision. Some — the University of Miami, for example — offer two rounds of early decision and early action.

Charlotte Smith Charlotte Smith (Family photo)
Charlotte Smith, 17, a senior at Walt Whitman High, put her early-decision chip on Wake Forest University, in North Carolina. Her application was deferred into the regular pool. For many applicants, that is demoralizing. For Smith, it was a relief.

“I’m actually glad,” Smith said last week as she had several applications pending and some offers in hand, including some with scholarships. It’s hard in November, she said, “to pick one school and say this has everything I want.” As students, she said, “we’re still trying on different versions of ourselves.”

Micah Guthrie, 17, a senior at Washington Latin, is shooting for liberal arts colleges but not through early decision. “I make a lot of my decisions last minute,” he said. In the fall, he said, “I really didn’t know a lot about a lot of colleges.”

Micah Guthrie Micah Guthrie (Nick Anderson/The Washington Post)
Among his targets is Davidson, advertised on a sweatshirt he wore to school the other day. His mother, Michelle Guthrie, a registrar at Washington Latin, said money is a factor wherever he gets accepted. “We’ll make it happen,” she said. “But I’m hoping some scholarships come with those choices, too.”

Davidson had the highest share of early-decision admits in its entering class among colleges The Post analyzed: about 60 percent. Davidson said it is firmly committed to access, with half of the early-decision students who were admitted qualifying for need-based financial aid. That is nearly the same as the share in regular admissions who receive need-based aid. The small college, which has a robust NCAA Division I sports program, said it also relies heavily on early decision for athletic recruiting.

A few years ago, the share of early-decision students entering Emory was less than 40 percent, said John Latting, the university’s dean of admission. Now two rounds of early decision fill about half of Emory’s class. Latting said the volume of early-decision applications has doubled in the past four or five years.

“Mostly what’s going on is an unbelievably competitive marketplace” for top students, he said. “Early programs bring some calm to what is otherwise a frenzy.”

Latting said Emory uses financial aid aggressively to ensure it enrolls a diverse class. About 20 percent of freshmen have enough financial need to qualify for federal Pell grants, a sizeable share for a private university. But Latting acknowledged that early-decision applicants, the Pledgers, tend to be more affluent than the regulars, the Shoppers. That creates added pressure on schools hunting for more students from low-income families.

“I wouldn’t for a minute say this is the right system for the nation,” Latting said.