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Early decision applications face uncertain future

Brown, other schools reconsider early decision admission policies

Since 2001, Brown applicants have had the option to apply to the University via early decision — a binding admissions practice with a deadline months before regular decision applications. On Wednesday, the latest cohort of hopeful Brunonians submitted their binding applications. But this policy’s future is currently under deliberation at the University and across the country. 

In September, President Christina Paxson P’19 P’MD’20 convened the Ad Hoc Committee on Admissions Policies to examine, among other policies, “whether or not there’s something that is better suited to our mission” than early decisions, Provost Francis Doyle told The Herald at the time. 

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to limit race-conscious college admissions, many higher education institutions have strived to find alternatives to sustain diverse student bodies. 

Citing racial and class inequities that may be exacerbated by early decision admissions, some universities have reassessed their binding November and December deadlines both now and in years past. But some proponents argue that early decision may provide benefits to both applicants themselves and the institutions that offer it. 


Why do colleges offer early decision?

“Admissions is a song and dance of yield,” said Tamy-Fee Meneide, director of college counseling at Solomon Admissions Consulting, an independent college counseling firm. “Universities need to fill the seats, but they want to make sure that the students they’re saying yes to are going to say yes back.”

Since early decision indicates a commitment from applicants, universities “lock in” a large percentage of their incoming class ahead of the May 1 enrollment deadline, making for high yield rates, according to Cathleen Sheils, former director of undergraduate admission at Cornell and senior associate director of college counseling at Solomon Admissions Consulting.

That share has increased in recent years: For the University’s class of 2027, 879 of the total 2,609 applicants admitted were offered early decision admission. In the class of 2023, that number stood at 769.

At Brown, the policy was implemented in 2001 in part to reduce the workload of admission officers overburdened by high numbers of early action applications.

Sheils noted that students also benefit from early decision practices. An early decision application demonstrates commitment and passion for a specific institution. 

“It gives a student an option to hands down say to a school, ‘You’re my top school,’” Sheils said. “‘You’re the school I’m most interested in, and you’re the school that’s my best fit.’”

Students may also apply early decision due to higher acceptance rates, Sheils said. 

At Brown, the class of 2027 saw an early decision acceptance rate of 13% — more than three times higher than the 3.8% acceptance rate for regular decision applicants.

Inequity in early decision


While acceptance rates are higher for early decision, “wealthy and white students are the ones most likely to take advantage of the program,” Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, wrote in an email to The Herald.

Kahlenberg, an advocate for class-based affirmative action over race-based affirmative action, was also an expert witness called in by Students for Fair Admissions — the plaintiff in the Supreme Court case that outlawed affirmative action.

In a fall poll of first-year students, The Herald found demographic differences between respondents who applied early and those who did not. Early applicants were more likely to receive no financial aid, hold legacy status, have higher levels of parental education, have attended private high schools and be recruited athletes. Non-first-generation respondents were also two times more likely to apply early compared to first-generation students.

Applicants with access to college counselors also apply early at higher rates, as they are explicitly advised to take advantage of applying early, Kahlenberg wrote.

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Of respondents to The Herald’s first-year poll who worked with a college counselor, 63% applied early decision, in comparison to 51% in the group that did not have a college counselor. 

Many early decision applicants hail “from well-resourced families or well-resourced schools,” said Judi Robinovitz, founder and co-owner of the test-preparation and academic advising company Score at the Top.

“It is a tremendous disadvantage for kids who go to under-resourced high schools,” Robinovitz said. Counselors at under-resourced high schools may have limited time and large student caseloads, making it “much harder to get information about (non-local) colleges.”

Kahlenberg also highlighted how students who are bound by an early decision acceptance have less flexibility to compare financial aid offers from other universities. Wealthier students in early decision admissions “do not have to worry about comparing financial aid offers from different universities,” he wrote.

Herald poll data and national studies have corroborated these socioeconomic discrepancies. 

But, according to Meneide, because some colleges meet 100% of applicants’ demonstrated financial need, many students don’t have to be concerned with affordability when applying early, she said. 

At Brown, admitted students are guaranteed to have 100% of their demonstrated financial need met by grants. 

Logan Powell, associate provost for enrollment and dean of admission, deferred offering any comment until after the work of the Ad Hoc Committee is completed, which is expected by the start of next semester, The Herald previously reported

He previously told The Herald that the University’s financial aid program has allowed the Office of Undergraduate Admission “to attract a remarkably diverse and talented applicant pool.”

Still, students and families have cited financial uncertainty as a barrier to applying early.   

What comes next?

Brown isn’t the first university to look closely at early admissions. Virginia Tech is the most recent institution to eliminate early decision, citing concerns about equity. In 2006, Harvard, Princeton and the University of Virginia all eliminated early application programs, all citing concerns about economic equity.

The Harvard admission team hoped that their decision would “cause other universities to follow and thus do away with (early action) altogether,” then-interim Harvard President Derek Bok wrote in an email to The Herald. But few did, he added.

As a result, many students chose to apply to and attend other schools that offered early admissions programs instead of Harvard, the Harvard Gazette reported at the time. Both Harvard and Princeton reinstated their early admissions policies in 2011, and the University of Virginia followed in 2019.

If Brown were to eliminate early decision alongside other Ivy institutions, Robinovitz said, “you’re leveling the playing field. If you’re the only one to eliminate it, it would hurt.”

Instead of eliminating early decision, Meneide said she believes that higher education institutions should look to address underlying issues of inequity in secondary schools. “It’s just a matter of creating a culture that does not point blame, but instead wonders how we can collaborate because the structure is broken,” Meneide said.

Robinovitz said that she’s seen an increase in pro-bono work done by education consultants to reach high school students earlier in the application process. She also called on colleges and universities to increase their outreach efforts to fill knowledge gaps about early decision.

Kahlenberg called Brown’s Ad Hoc Committee “an opportunity to do many of the things that should have been implemented long ago — jettisoning unfair preferences for the wealthy and giving a meaningful break to economically disadvantaged students of all races.”

The Committee’s work is “is actively underway,” University Spokesperson Brian Clark wrote in an email to The Herald.

According to Clark, the committee plans to make “data-informed recommendations” to ensure that the University’s admission practices “align with Brown’s stated commitments to excellence, access and diversity.”

Owen Dahlkamp

Owen Dahlkamp is a Section Editor overseeing coverage for University News and Science & Research. Hailing from San Diego, CA, he is concentrating in political science and cognitive neuroscience with an interest in data analytics. In his free time, you can find him making spreadsheets at Dave’s Coffee.

Julianna Chang

Julianna Chang is a University News Editor who oversees the academics and advising and student government beats. A sophomore from the Bay Area, Julianna is studying Biology and Political Science on the pre-medical track. When she's not in class or in the office, she can be found eating some type of noodle soup and devouring bad books.

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