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Early Admissions is Here to Stay Despite Critics

With November 15th here and gone, the deadlines for early college applications have passed.  But early admissions programs are here to stay.

In past years, several leading universities (Harvard, Princeton, University of Virginia) did away with their early admissions programs. These moves by the some of the most selective universities in the land were heralded as a harbinger of things to come.

It turns out that colleges love these programs too much to eliminate them, and some that eliminated them are bringing them back.

In an article in today’s Inside Higher Ed, we learn that UVA has decided to reinstate its early admissions program. The reason colleges love these early programs is not that they want to help students in any way with their decisions or to lessen the application burden. No. Colleges love these early programs because they help take some of the guesswork in enrollment management.

[For a thorough explanation of early decision programs, see the article “Early Decision or Regular Decision:  Which is Better?“.]

Colleges love early programs for two primary reasons.

First, early applicants are more likely to accept an offer of admission. These yield rates (or the percentage of admitted students who accept an offer of admission) are important, not only for managing enrollment, but because yield rates are part of many ranking systems: the higher the yield rate, the better the school is assumed to be (this is bunk: just because a school is “popular” does not make it better–but that’s another story).

Second, early applicants tend to have more resources and thus require less financial aid. Schools are businesses and they need to pay their bills. If a college can fill 30% of its seats in an early round with students requiring less financial aid, then they can worry less in the regular round about allocating their need-based and merit-based financial aid awards.

Think of it this way: each accepted student can be equated with a certain amount revenue. All things being equal, kids with more revenue (sorry to say) may be more desirable than kids who need financial aid. The ability to pay is (sorry to say again) is a credential in admissions. And as keepers of the budget, admissions and financial aid offices must work in tandem to ensure that the university’s revenue targets are met. Of course, some schools (Harvard, Princeton) need to worry less about their revenue streams, as they have a thick financial cushion. But the upper strata of financially-secure schools is a tiny minority: most other schools must monitor their revenue targets carefully, and early admissions programs help colleges do just that.

Critics of early admissions programs rightfully point out that they put poorer kids at a disadvantage. This is true and lamentable. But it is unreasonable to expect that private universities, especially, will do away with early admissions programs altogether. Colleges are businesses (despite lovely speeches to the contrary), and unless they pay close attention to their budgets, they may end up like Birmingham Southern College or (worse) Antioch College.

So my take? I guess I would defend private colleges’ rights to create and use early admissions programs–whether binding or not–as a way to manage their budgets and their enrollments. They have to be responsible stewards of their own resources, and early admissions programs help them do that.

But I find it annoying that the University of Virginia, a publicly funded institution, would find it necessary to reinstate early programs. UVA operates under a moral mandate to serve the citizens of Virginia–rich and poor alike. If it is true (and research seems to indicate) that poorer students are disadvantaged by early admissions programs, then I wonder whether one might be able to claim discrimination based on ability to pay? Wouldn’t that be an interesting lawsuit? I wonder of Lloyd Thacker of the Education Conservancy might want to battle against those windmills? Probably not.

Mark Montgomery
Educational Consultant

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