The Concerns with Early Decision

Welcome back to a the series I have very creatively named “Going to College”, in which I’ll discuss the process of applying to and starting college from my perspective. This might be boring for the majority of my readers who are experiencing the same sort of stuff as me, so we’ll see how long this lasts. As I mentioned in my piece last week on early decision applications, there are major issues with the ED programs at many colleges around the country as it concerns which students are able to take advantage of those programs. Today, I’m going to discuss those concerns, and what I think might be the best solution moving forward might be.

For those of you who don’t know what Early Decision (ED) is, it’s a way that students can apply to college (at some schools). You can only apply to one school ED, because when you apply, you sign a contract committing to attend the school if you’re admitted. It’s helpful for students because you learn whether or not you’ve been admitted before the end of your first semester of your senior year of high school (which is certainly a relief), and it’s a smart enrollment strategy by colleges, because they know that all the students who they admit in the ED round are going to enroll.

But there’s a number of negatives to this system that cause it to lead to much more inequality on college campuses. First, lets look at the limitations on ED:

ED applicants are committing to the school before they see any sort of financial aid package. They can get a pretty good idea of what the school might give them through calculators on the school’s admissions website, but there’s no guarantees. So in theory, you could end up committed to a school where you don’t have the available resources to pay for the tuition. This leads to pretty much every student (aside from the select few whose families can pay the entire tuition out of pocket) being left out of this opportunity. And for many colleges that choose to use the ED program, half of each incoming class is admitted in the ED round (sometimes there are 2 ED rounds, one of which starts later in case students need more time to choose a school). So at least half of the class, generally, is coming from pretty darn well-off backgrounds.

(Yes, that includes me, and I’m certainly aware that my ability to get into college in the ED round had to do more so with my background and my ability to apply ED than many other elements of my application)

ED also requires students to make a very big commitment without really getting weigh their options. This is a less important issue than the financial limits, but for many students, committing to a school in April of their senior year when they have multiple options in front of them is a daunting task. The ED system just amplifies those stressors. For me, I knew I wanted to go to Wesleyan for certain by last August. But not everyone finds the perfect school for them that easily. So if you’re granted a slight advantage by applying ED, the pressure exists to find that certain school and apply ED (if you’re financially able). That’s an incredibly daunting task for someone trying to decide how they want to spend the next 4 years of their lives.

So what’s the solution? Well, it’s fairly complicated. There’s another way that students can apply to schools early if they are able to get their applications organized sooner called Early Action (EA), where students will learn whether or not they were admitted around the same time as ED applicants, but they aren’t committed to the school as a portion of that admission. But that’s not fantastic for many colleges, because they don’t get those confirmed enrollees in the same way they would through ED.

The best solution that’s been implemented is what Stanford and most of the Ivy League schools use. It’s called Restrictive Early Action (REA), and it’s a hybrid between ED and EA. But the problem is, it’s super complicated, and is quite likely to scare students off. See, you can apply to more schools than your REA school, because you aren’t committed. But (in theory) you aren’t allowed to apply to another private school in the EA or REA rounds, unless there’s some sort of deadline for scholarships or the admissions process is a rolling decision process. But you could still apply to a public university if you wanted.

The idea behind REA is that, if you’re admitted to the REA school, you’ll attend the school because it’s a top-tier school, but if you need an out because of money, you’ve still been admitted to a back-up state school. Problem is, it’s super complicated to figure out, and there’s little way for the REA school to know that you applied to another school ED or EA. The only way REA really works is if all schools share the lists of students admitted REA (like I discussed last week with ED admits), and if there’s a much more clear way to explain what the limits are on which schools you can apply to REA, and which you can’t.

There’s another underlying issue as well that could prevent any sort of change, and that’s how the U.S. News and World Report College Rankings are calculated. Those rankings give extra points for lower acceptance rates, but also for higher matriculation rates from admits. For the highest-tier schools (like the Ivies and Stanford), they know that pretty much everyone they admit will go there (with a few exceptions), and so they can do REA because if you’re accepted, you’ll probably attend. So those schools won’t fall on the rankings (that’s why they’ve started to do REA). But for most other private schools, their rankings matter to them (even though they shouldn’t), and so they want to keep ED so that they can confirm enrollments and have a high matriculation rate for those rankings.

There are a number of other issues with the U.S. News and World Report rankings, but that’s another topic for another day. At the core, however, if American colleges and universities are truly committed to creating equality and diversity on campus, they need to figure out how they can make admissions fair and open to all students, regardless of their background. ED isn’t making that possible. Yes, I took advantage of it, because it was an option for me. But ED is an unjust system that we must change if we want to really remake higher ed in the U.S.

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