Early Decision Harms Students of Color and Low-Income Students

High school students sit for their commencement ceremony in Long Beach, California, June 2009.

In early November, thousands of hardworking students across the country will send in their early decision or early action applications for coveted spots at the nation’s most prestigious colleges. These early admissions processes—which provide a way for colleges to identify the most passionate applicants and give them a better chance of admission to their dream school—are often presented as a win-win for both schools and students. Unfortunately, the reality is that both policies, especially early decision, reinforce the racial inequities in the U.S. education system.

By the time students of color apply to college, they have already had to navigate an educational system that, thanks to structural racism, spends $23 billion less on districts in which the majority of students are not white. These districts receive fewer teachers, classes, and resources to prepare students for higher education. And the students of color and low-income students who do overcome these barriers then run into a college admissions process that rewards students for having affluent parents. This manifests in a variety of ways, from private tutoring for SATs and ACTs to access to advanced placement courses, sports, and other extracurriculars that can give affluent applicants a leg up in college admissions.

Early admissions programs—particularly early decision—take all of these advantages and give wealthy students yet another: a chance to jump to the head of the queue for admissions consideration.

Early decision admissions policies allow high school students to apply earlier to a university, typically by November of their senior year, with the students committing to attend that university if accepted. The binding nature of early decision means that only students who can commit to a university before seeing their financial aid offer can take advantage of the policy. Most students cannot apply under such terms, especially as the cost of college is increasing almost eight times faster than wages.

Early admissions programs provide wealthy, mostly white students an edge for acceptance to competitive schools: Not surprisingly, research shows that early decision applicants are three times more likely to be white. They also undermine incentives for universities to court students through financial aid and are associated with declining campus diversity.

The accumulated result of these unearned privileges and early admissions policies is nothing short of a crisis of representation on America’s most prestigious college campuses. Low-income students and Black and Latinx students remain woefully underrepresented at selective institutions, while the majority of students at the nation’s top colleges are wealthy and white. Just 3 percent of students attending top U.S. colleges come from the bottom 25 percent of income earners, while nearly 3 in 4 students at prestigious universities come from the top 25 percent of income earners. Here are three ways that early decision policies particularly harm students of color and low-income students.

Wealthy students have an unfair advantage

Students who apply early decision enjoy a higher admissions rate than those who apply through regular decision. For example, Ivy League institutions typically admit between 5 and 11 percent of students who apply during regular decision but admit 14 to 23 percent of those who apply early decision. Other institutions such as American University, Trinity University, and Providence College have early acceptance rates that are 50 to 70 percentage points higher than the regular acceptance rate. Researchers estimate that applying early decision provides the equivalent benefit of an extra 100 points on the SAT, the standardized test widely used for college admissions.

Wealth disparities, however, often prevent low-income students from taking advantage of early decision programs because they are more likely to have to consider competing financial aid packages when selecting a college. Moreover, wealth is unequally divided in America along racial lines—meaning that many of the students who cannot afford to apply early decision are students of color. In 2016, the typical Black and Latinx households had approximately $17,600 and $20,700, respectively, in total wealth, compared with $171,100 for the typical white household.

This pervasive racial wealth gap increases dependence on financial aid in communities of color. In the 2015–16 academic year, Black, American Indian and Alaska Native, and Latinx students were the most likely to receive financial aid. Although Asian Americans access financial aid at lower rates than all racial groups, those who do often receive a greater amount of aid. For example, Asian American students receive higher average Pell Grant awards—$5,030 per year—than any other racial or ethnic group.

In sum, financial aid plays a significant role in providing access to higher education for students of color, who often need to compare aid packages before committing to a university. As a result, many students of color are essentially priced out of early decision.

Universities have less of an incentive to court students through financial aid

Universities market early decision as a way for students who are 100 percent committed to a school to apply earlier. However, the binding nature of the policy also removes the incentive for institutions to court students through financial aid packages. This means that most students who apply under early decision apply with the confidence that their families can cover the costs of attending college.

Early action is a more inclusive policy—though still far from perfect—that allows students to apply and be notified of their acceptance early but without a binding agreement. Admitted students then have several months to compare school options and decide which one is the best fit. Some schools’ early action policies, however, restrict the types of admissions programs through which students can apply. Though less inequitable than early decision, early action shares the same fundamental flaw in that it rewards students who have received the supports to determine their college choice sooner and complete an application months earlier than they would otherwise need to.

Early decision negatively affects campus diversity

Some research suggests that as early decision enrollment increases, Hispanic and Asian American enrollment decreases. Many universities do not release their admissions data or publish internal analyses relating to the quantifiable admissions advantage provided by early decision. But research suggests that universities with early decision policies have student bodies that are wealthier and less racially diverse than schools without these programs. This has negative implications for overall cohort diversity if universities are filling a larger percentage of their spots through early decision. Some university officials argue that fly-in and virtual tours help expand opportunities to underserved students. While helpful, those policies only benefit a targeted few and do not represent a systematic effort to recruit diverse talent.

Moreover, when a college or university fills a substantial portion of its class with early decision acceptances, fewer spots remain for regular decision applicants. Colleges and universities such as Davidson, Emory, Swarthmore, and Tufts fill close to half of their freshman spots through early decision. The University of Pennsylvania enrolled 53 percent of its class of 2023 from its early decision applicant pool.

Some university leaders understand the discriminatory effect of early decision policies and the benefits of expanding access to educational opportunity. Harvard University ended its early decision program in 2006 and now uses a restrictive early action policy that is nonbinding. After the University of Virginia ended its early decision policy in 2007, the dean of admissions reported increased class diversity and academic accomplishment. However, Virginia reinstated its early decision policy this year, supposedly to provide more options for students to apply, becoming the only major state university with a binding early admissions policy. It remains to be seen how this policy reversal will affect diversity on Virginia’s campus.

Conclusion

University early decision policies, particularly at the most prestigious colleges, reinforce the inequities found throughout America’s education system. Wealthy students are able to apply through early decision because they can afford the risk of not receiving a substantial financial aid package. Meanwhile, low-income students and students of color are left to compete for the remaining spots. Early decision perpetuates broader patterns of societal and economic inequality. Ending early decision admissions policies can help ensure that more students have equal access to higher education opportunities.

Abril Castro is a research assistant for Race and Ethnicity Policy at the Center for American Progress.

The author would like to give special thanks to Ben Miller and Marcella Bombardieri.