by Kim Clark

Higher admission rate of early college applicants fuels controversy

High school seniors who apply to college early -- through "Early Decision" or "Early Action" programs with fall deadlines -- are more likely to receive admission letters than those who apply using the regular deadlines and processes at more than 80 percent of the colleges that report such statistics.

And the admissions advantage is big, according to U.S.News & World Report's analysis of the 233 colleges that report separate rates for their early admission programs. In 2009, the last year for which complete data is available, the typical college's early acceptance rate was 15 percentage points higher than its rate for those who sent their applications in by the standard deadlines, which are usually in December or January. In some cases, however, such as the University of Arkansas and SUNY's College of Environmental Science and Forestry, more than 80 percent of early applicants gained admission, compared to less than a third of the regular applicants.

Of course, many colleges insist that the early admission rates only appear higher because better students apply early, and that those students would win admissions if they applied in the regular pool. But some colleges say they do give preferences to early applicants. And the disparities in admissions rates may be key reasons that Dartmouth College, Duke University, MIT, and many other colleges reported record numbers of early applications this year.

The differences in the admission rates will also likely continue to fuel a debate over whether early admissions programs are good for students.

In 2006, Harvard University stopped its early admissions program after a 2003 book by some of its faculty showed that wealthy and privileged students benefited the most from early admissions programs. A research team led by Christopher Avery, a professor at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, found that, for example, students who applied early got less financial aid.

A growing number of colleges, including Carnegie Mellon University, Cornell University, and Harvard, match financial aid offers from competing schools. But a high school senior who applies through an "Early Decision" program has to promise to attend that school, and so doesn't have any competing financial aid offers. (In contrast, "Early Action" admission programs give students early answers but allow them to try to get competing offers.) That's why students who need financial aid are usually counseled to apply to several schools using the regular process, and compare several aid offers before making a commitment.

A few colleges, including the University of Virginia, followed Harvard's lead and eliminated their "Early Decision" programs. But in November 2010, UVA announced it would start an "Early Action" application program for the fall of 2011, saying it was responding to students' demands for earlier decisions while still providing opportunities to compare colleges and price tags. Greg Roberts, UVA's dean of admissions, insists early applicants to UVA won't have an edge. "We strongly believe that there should be no strategic advantage to applying early action," he says.

Although Harvard has reported record numbers of applicants for the last several years, it has announced it is evaluating its no-early-applications policy.

Some college admissions officers who currently run "Early Action" programs say the admissions disparity for early applicants is even higher than the published numbers indicate. These statistics only count the early applicants who are accepted early. Many colleges defer decisions on some early applicants, accepting them after the deadline for being counted as early admissions.

The University of Vermont, for example, reported that it initially accepted just 62 percent of the high school class of 2009 who applied through its "Early Action" program, which allows students to get an early answer, but doesn't require them to make an immediate commitment to the school. That makes UVM's early admission program look tougher than its standard application process, which generally admits about 72 percent of applicants. But Director of Admissions Beth A. Wiser says her staff defers dozens of early applicants to give them another chance at admission during the regular process. Fully 77 percent of all early applicants eventually got accepted last year, she says.

She insists, however, that edge only reflects the stronger qualifications of the students who are so well organized that they can complete their applications early. "We apply the same admission criteria [to all applicants]", she says.

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Early Applicants More Likely to Gain College Admission