Early Decision Isn’t As Common As You Might Think — But It Still Favors the Wealthy

We can debate whether or not early decision is now “the norm.” Either way, it still favors the wealthy and well-informed.


The New Norm?

November 1 is just two weeks away — and that means tens of thousands of students are racing to finish their early-decision applications.

Early decision, we’ve been told in recent years, has become “the new normal.” That’s certainly true for wealthy students who hire private tutors like James Murphy, a private testing and admissions consultant.

He’s going to help them navigate that system, but it doesn’t mean he likes it.

He dug into the stats recently for a report for the College Board and wrote a column about it for The Hechinger Report: “A boon for colleges and wealthy families, ‘early decision’ is unfair — and here to stay.”

So is early decision really on the rise?

Yes. In 2012, just over 5 percent of all the students who applied that year to four-year colleges applied early, according to Murphy. Five years later, in 2017, that number climbed to 7.6 percent.

That’s not exactly the new normal.

Not by a long shot. The number of private, non-profit colleges offering early decision rose to 12 percent from just under 10 percent. Most of that new growth, Murphy points out, was among colleges that already enroll high percentages of their applicants.

Then why does it matter?

First, it encourages high-school students and their families to see college admissions as a game to be won. “It forces students to think about applying strategically,” he says. “I’m all for the kid who goes to Elon, falls in love with it, and applies early. Great. Why should that kid, if he can get into Elon, have to go through all the anxiety?”

But once he, as a private tutor, is talking about “strategy” with families, something feels off kilter.

Ultimately, he acknowledges, that’s not the biggest public worry.

“The harm that’s being done to families who feel a need to engage in this kind of game theory is not a big concern,” he says. “That not why a college should choose not to do it. They should choose not to do it because what studies there are out there — and there aren’t enough — indicate that the benefit goes largely to wealthy white students who have private advisors.”

A 2016 Jack Kent Cooke Foundation report analyzed Common App data for high-achieving students. It found that 29 percent of them from families making more than $250,000 applied early decision. In comparison, just 16 percent from families with incomes less than $50,000 did the same.

Early decision isn’t going anywhere, though.

It was 13 years ago that Harvard, Princeton, and the University of Virginia all scrapped their early-admission policies. Maybe other institutions would follow? They didn’t. And all three went back to some type of early-admission policy within a few years.

Early decision provides certainty for colleges in an uncertain admissions process, letting some of them now lock down half of their freshman class months ahead of time.

Instead Murphy suggested that other carrots and sticks need to exist [maybe new federal policy, maybe public shaming] that focus on the real issue: selective colleges that are under-enrolling low- and middle-income students. Murphy would rather see more talk on changes like an endowment tax on wealthy universities that don’t enroll a substantial number of students on Pell Grants.

“Basically,” he says, “we should be addressing the outcomes that early decision contributes to.”

Reading list:

— Scott Smallwood

Keeping Watch on Students

A couple of headlines jumped out this week in the ongoing debates about colleges tracking their students (and applicants):

How College Admissions Offices Rank Prospects Before They Apply

The Washington Post published a deep look at all the ways colleges are building digital dossiers on prospective applicants to better predict who might enroll. (This story is a great example of something that most people within higher ed have long known about but the public isn’t nearly as aware of.)

How UNC Got the Tech To Track Men’s Basketball, Football Players’ Class Attendance

Student journalists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill used public-records requests to show the details of the implementation this year of SpotterEDU, a system for tracking student-athletes through a device in the classroom that automatically connects to their phones.

(Most athletics departments have long used staff and student assistants to keep an eye on athletes’ class attendance. Twenty years ago as an adjunct at the University of New Mexico, I had athletics staff call me to confirm that one star basketball player had shown up to class. He hadn’t. The next class, he was there, answering his own phone in the back of the room. “Yes,” he whispered, exasperated. “I’m here.”)

Students Under Surveillance?

Lee Gardner at The Chronicle of Higher Education takes a broad look at the advantages of all this tracking as well as its critiques: “Colleges are tracking them with greater sophistication, but the students don’t seem to care. Should you?”

Spotlight

College Is a Distant Dream in Much of Rural Michigan

Thirty-two of Michigan’s counties don’t have colleges. Having no easy access to education after high school creates a vicious cycle that perpetuates poverty in these communities that their residents struggle to break. (Detroit Free Press)

When Food Service Means Food Stamps

Contract work on university campuses contributes to disparities in opportunities for economic mobility among classes of people. Dining hall workers at the University of Alabama, for example, miss out on benefits like tuition discounts that university employees receive. (AL.com)

  • This story is part of a collaboration among several news organizations that are examining the economics and labor practices of campus dining at public universities in Alabama and Mississippi.
  • In this piece, Mississippi Today and the Clarion Ledger report on significant price increases in meal plans. Students are paying for more than just food and those plans drive up the cost of attending college.

Soaring Housing Costs Stretch Already-Strapped College Students

For many college students, living costs may exceed the cost of tuition and fees, as affordable housing options are becoming increasingly hard to find. (PBS)

Housing Agency Deceived Students From the Start

A company that rented mostly to Chinese students at the University of California at Davis had a history of deceitful business practices, according to documents obtained by the Enterprise. Students told the newspaper they had no idea they were entering into an unusual type of housing agreement and signing away their rights. The university stepped in to help prevent them from being evicted. (Davis Enterprise)

Texas A&M System Employees Were Asked To Teach Office Pet Birds To Say ‘Howdy.’ It Didn’t Go Well.

Who doesn’t want to read an accountability story about parakeets? (The Texas Tribune)

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