The recession appears to have been very good for the practice of "early decision," in which applicants must commit to enroll if admitted. Not only are many colleges reporting increased interest from applicants in applying early, but 2009 saw a jump in the proportion of colleges reporting that they were increasing the number of students admitted this way.
These are key findings of the 2010 "State of College Admission,"  an annual report from the National Association for College Admission Counseling. The report is based on surveys of college admissions offices and high school guidance counselors.
During 2009, 47 percent of colleges reported an increase in the number of early decision applications they received, about the same proportion as the previous two years. But 65 percent of colleges with early decision reported admitting more students through the process in 2009, compared to only 43 percent reporting such increases the year before. And the gap is growing between the admissions rates for early decision and regular applicants at the same institutions. Colleges with early decision admit on average 55 percent of all applicants, but 70 percent of early decision applicants.
In another data point on the return of early decision, in 2009 only 5 percent of colleges with the option reported admitting fewer applicants that way than they did the year before. In each of the previous three years, more than 30 percent of colleges reported such a shift.
Early decision appears to be gaining popularity -- with applicants and colleges -- following several years in which a few prominent colleges abandoned early decision and others scaled it back, amid much talk  that many students don't actually benefit. Most critics said that early decision favored wealthier students, who are more likely to have started the college selection process early and to be in a position to commit to a college without comparing all financial aid offers. Many admissions officers say they agree with the critics, yet can't resist a tactic that allows them to fill a larger share of their classes earlier in the year. And the data in the report showing that those who apply early are more likely to be admitted are just the sorts of statistics that encourage high school seniors to seek out an early decision option.
Here are the numbers:
Changes in Early Decision, 2002-9
|Changes in early decision applications|
|--Colleges reporting increases||53%||43%||37%||58%||63%||49%||49%||47%|
|--Colleges reporting no change||28%||33%||18%||24%||12%||19%||18%||26%|
|--Colleges reporting decreases||17%||24%||45%||18%||25%||31%||33%||28%|
|Changes in numbers of students admitted through early decision|
|--Colleges reporting increases||42%||30%||29%||48%||47%||36%||43%||65%|
|--Colleges reporting no change||41%||44%||22%||31%||16%||32%||26%||30%|
|--Colleges reporting decreases||18%||26%||49%||21%||38%||32%||32%||5%|
While the shift in early decision is notable and will no doubt attract much attention among those applying to college, early decision is in fact not a dominant admissions trend. Only 7 percent of applications at colleges with the early decision option come in that way. But because early decision is popular at some of the most competitive colleges (and among some of the most competitive students), its role in admissions is disproportionate to its numbers.
And that's one of the contradictions of the report -- this year and most years. Many of the data in the report show that most colleges aren't that competitive in admissions, and that applicants are indeed likely to find a college to attend. But the data showing shifts in the trends among the best-prepared students and better-known colleges tend to capture all the attention.
Over all, the data show that for fall 2009, colleges admitted 66.5 percent of all applicants, with private institutions only marginally more selective than publics. Only 36.6 percent of colleges, in fact, accept fewer than 50 percent of applicants.
There are some signs that college admission will become less selective in the years ahead (although this won't affect the Ivies). While about 65 percent of colleges reported increases in applications, that proportion is smaller than what has been the norm in recent years (about 75 percent). Further, the largest percentage since 1996 (29 percent) reported receiving fewer applications.
While only a minority of students apply to more than a handful of colleges, that share is steadily growing. Of fall 2009 freshmen, 23 percent applied to seven or more institutions, up from 22 percent the year before and 19 percent the year before that.
The NACAC report also shows that online applications are clearly the norm these days. Colleges reported receiving 80 percent of applications online in 2009, up from 72 percent in 2008 and 68 percent in 2007.
When it comes to factors that colleges consider in admissions decisions, the top criteria are not new: grades, the strength of the high school curriculum and admissions test scores. But the NACAC study notes a steady rise for another factor: "demonstrated interest in enrolling." In 2003, only 7 percent of colleges identified that factor as being "considerably important," but in recent years, about 21 percent of colleges have said that's so. Colleges use a number of factors to consider demonstrated interest, including campus visits, contact with admissions offices and so forth, generally believing that those with strong interest are more likely to enroll and more likely to do so without significant aid.