You don't have to go back very far -- 2006, in fact -- to find a time when it looked like the early admissions trend might be reversed. In the years prior, many admissions experts had worried about elite colleges admitting an increasingly large share of their classes through early programs, many of which require students not only to apply early, but to commit to enrolling if admitted.
Then in 2006, first Harvard University,  and then Princeton University and the University of Virginia, announced that they were doing away with early admissions -- as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Delaware had done a few years prior.
At the competitive colleges where early admissions is most often a factor, many that didn't eliminate the practice said that they agreed that too much pressure was associated with early applications, and that it was time to dial it back. Last year, many experts assumed that the economic uncertainty in which families found themselves would discourage early applications and that they might drop. Why commit yourself to a college before knowing what kind of aid package you might land elsewhere? But early decision applications went up  at many institutions.
This year, while many colleges are still counting (the deadlines for early admissions vary), all signs point to another year in which more students apply early -- and in which some colleges may increase the share of their class admitted early. The colleges reporting increases include not only some of the most competitive, but some that are a notch or two below in competitiveness.
And those colleges reporting a fall in early applications generally say that they remain well above where they were just a few years ago. (Many public institutions are also reporting increases in the number of applicants who are applying earlier in the year, but formal early programs are not a factor at many of these institutions, which use rolling or other admissions systems that do not require a commitment from applicants.)
Encouraging the trend of more early applications, both college and high school counselors said, was the strategy of many colleges -- even those without early decision -- to encourage students to apply earlier in the year, thus making it more of the norm for high school seniors to be applying in early fall, not in December.
Consider some of these figures so far from institutions whose deadlines for early admissions have passed.
At Duke University, the number of early decision applications is up 32 percent this year. At George Washington University, early applications are up 24 percent (and 70 percent over two years). At Grinnell College, numbers are projected to be up by 10 percent, following a similar increase the year before. Stanford University is up 4 percent. New York University is up 5 percent. Smith College is up 6 percent. Dartmouth College is up 3 percent. Pomona College is up 2 percent.
While Duke's new early application pool tops 2,000, increases are also being seen at institutions with smaller early pools (and total classes). At Lawrence University, the early application total last year at this time was 21, and this year it is double, at 42. Given the number of applications started but not yet completed, and the traditionally high admission rate for early applicants, Lawrence expects to enroll about 50 or so early applicants. That would take the share of the class admitted early from 10.5 percent to 14 or 15 percent.
To be sure, not everyone is up. Haverford and Williams Colleges both expect small declines, although even with those declines they will be above where they were a few years ago. The same is true for Yale University.
In terms of a national picture, data from the Common Application also suggest an increase is in the works. The Common Application reports a 22 percent increase, as of November 1, in the number of early applications (some of them requiring a commitment to enroll and others not). That's 185,460 applications, a figure that will rise as other early deadlines are reached. There has also been an increase in the number of Common Application colleges receiving at least one early application -- to 292 institutions, up from 265 last year.
High schools are also reporting that they are seeing increases. Phillip Trout, college counselor at Minnetonka High School and president-elect of the Minnesota Association for College Admission Counseling, said that he is seeing "brisk business" with early applications this fall, up 12 percent over a year ago, when the numbers ended up 13 percent above the prior year's total. Trout said that while many reasons may be at play (admissions deans generally cite the economy), "mostly it comes back to the pitch being given by colleges." That is simply that students believe that they have better chances of getting in if they apply early.
Of course that may be eroded a bit at some institutions that are seeing the largest increases. Duke has historically admitted about one third of those who apply early (much better odds than for those who apply through the regular process), but officials there expect that the admit rate for early decision this year will drop.
The advantage of early admissions for the applicant is a senior year without as much stress, and many counselors applaud the option for those high schoolers who have a clear sense of direction and who have had time to investigate options. Colleges benefit from binding early admissions programs because they can fill a portion of their classes without worrying about whether admitted applicants will accept the offers. A survey by the National Association for College Admission Counseling found that 30.8 percent of private colleges either admitted more students through early admissions this year or plan to do so next year.
The reason some are holding back on doing so is largely concern about the impact on low-income students. One of the criticisms of early admissions programs over the years is that wealthier students are more likely to use them because they are more likely to attend high schools where admissions strategies are much discussed and more likely to be able to apply without worrying about financial aid. Many students who need to compare aid packages are reluctant to apply in any binding program.
Debra Shaver, director of admission at Smith College, said that the college typically admits about a quarter of the class early and isn't likely to raise that number this year, despite an increase in the number of applications. She noted that the pool is showing a decline in the number of early applicants who are applying for financial aid.
Jess Lord, dean of admission and financial aid at Haverford, said that the college was seeing this year what it expected last year (and didn't see then): "many more families and students than usual expressed to us that they did not apply early decision because they wanted the opportunity to compare financial aid awards and to determine what they could afford."
Lord said that concerns about such students are part of why he doesn't want to see an increase in the share of the classes admitted early. "I don't want to lose a sense that we are making consistent decisions based on consistent criteria," he said.
Lloyd Thacker, founder of the Education Conservancy, a group that has promoted reforms of college admissions, said that the key to talking about early decision programs was to think separately about the students, the colleges and society.
"I would say that in times of uncertainty, in terms of being selected and selecting, you try to hedge your bets, and perhaps that is what institutions and kids are doing," he said. But he added that he was talking about "institutions that can do it and kids who can do it."
The problem is that many students don't feel this is an option that they can consider. "What I worry about is not how it helps one school or one student," he said. "But what happens when more people do this? Early decision disproportionately favors those with access to resources, so it doesn't serve the goals of access and equity."
Keeping early decision in check may be difficult in part because of variations in which more colleges are encouraging students to apply early -- even without early decision programs. Several counselors mentioned that increases in this pattern are making it more standard for high school students to be making decisions earlier in their senior year.
Seth Allen, dean of admission and financial aid at Grinnell, said that based on his time on the road at high schools this fall, many colleges "have clearly stepped up their outreach efforts earlier in the admission cycle, partly for competitive reasons and partly for survival reasons." Many more colleges "employ some form of a quick application which shortens the application requirements and promises a quick decision turnaround. An environment is developing which is encouraging or pressuring students to apply early," he said.
"One counselor I met this fall put it well -- she said it takes a strong-willed student at a school where the majority of the senior class is either applying early decision, early action, rolling decision, or with a quick application to not feel pressure to also submit an early application of some type."
As a result, Allen said he expects early applications of all sorts to continue to rise, based on peers reinforcing the messages from colleges. "The logic has flipped. It's no longer a question of why but of why not? In this kind of evolving environment peer influence is having a larger impact on students' decision to apply early, even early decision, than we've seen in the past."