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Colleges Should Abandon Early Admissions

The disadvantage they confer on low-income students is a fatal flaw, argues Harold O. Levy.

January 12, 2017
 
 

Many colleges and universities loudly and proudly proclaim they are committed to admitting more low-income students. The institutions are sincere, but despite the best of intentions, many of their policies act as barriers to keep most low-income students out, including those students with outstanding academic records.

The exclusion of the brightest low-income students is most severe at our nation’s highly selective colleges. A study issued this year by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, where I serve as executive director, found that a mere 3 percent of students at America’s top colleges come from the 25 percent of families with the lowest incomes. In contrast, 72 percent of students at these institutions come from the 25 percent of families with the highest incomes.

This enormous gap in admissions between students in the highest and lowest income groups is a national embarrassment. It doesn’t exist because the rich are smarter than the poor. It exists because the rich are getting a lot of breaks the poor simply aren’t. One of those breaks is the policy of early admissions.

Candidates for early admissions get many advantages, but the disadvantage the practice confers on low-income students is a fatal flaw. For that reason, colleges should abandon early admissions and return to admitting all students on the same timetable in the spring, so everyone competes on a level playing field.

According to the College Board, about 450 colleges now offer early admissions. That’s up from just over 100 in the 1990s, a Stanford University study found. There are two types of early admissions. Early-decision admissions require students to commit to attend the college if admitted and withdraw applications to other schools. Early action is not binding, so students are not required to attend after being admitted.

A survey by The Washington Post earlier this year “found 37 schools where the early-decision share of enrolled freshmen in 2015 was at least 40 percent,” including 54 percent at the University of Pennsylvania. That leaves a lot fewer openings for students applying during the regular admission period.

Early-admissions policies are good for colleges, because they attract students with a strong desire to attend, making it less likely the students will turn down offers of admission. That allows colleges to fill a good chunk of each freshman class early with a diverse mix of students. It also lets them shape a class with students needing little or no financial aid, to keep institutional budgets in balance.

On top of that, early admissions help colleges decrease their acceptance rates. College rankings, such as those complied by U.S. News & World Report, often use a low admit rate as an indication of an institution’s desirability, boosting its ranking.

Early-admissions policies are also good for students who apply this way -- usually by early November instead of the standard application deadline in January or February. Students admitted early find out in December or January, instead of during the regular admission-decision period in late April. That saves them months of worry and uncertainty and enables them to avoid applying to colleges that were merely backup choices.

More significantly, applying early can dramatically increase a student’s chances of acceptance at his or her first-choice school -- particularly at the most selective colleges and universities. For example, for the Class of 2020, only 6.8 percent of all students who applied for regular-decision admission to Ivy League schools were accepted. But the acceptance rate in the Ivy League for early-decision applicants was 20.3 percent -- nearly three times as high.

At Harvard University, which had the lowest acceptance rate in the Ivy League, just 3.4 percent of students applying for regular admission to the Class of 2020 were admitted, compared to 14.9 percent of those applying early. A study published by Harvard University Press estimated that students applying for early admission receive the equivalent of a 100-point bonus on the SAT -- an enormous advantage.

Students from affluent families often learn about the advantages of applying for early admissions from their college-educated parents, from expensive courses they take to prepare for taking the SAT and ACT exams, from their high school counselors or from private college coaches their parents hire to boost their admission chances.

But many low-income students are unaware of the option of applying early. Their parents typically have not gone to college and so can’t advise them. Guidance counselors at high schools with many low-income students are responsible for advising hundreds or as many as 1,000 students each, and so don’t have the time and, in many cases, the training to explain all the steps students can take to increase their odds of college admission.

For example, many low-income students are never told in their junior year of high school that they will need to have their ACT or SAT scores in hand by early-admission application deadlines, which are in November of their senior year. To have the scores in time, they need to take one or both of the tests in their junior year or the very beginning of their senior year in high school.

Most important, because low-income students can’t attend college without getting substantial financial aid, they can’t commit to enrolling in an institution by applying on an early-decision basis. They need to compare aid offers once they hear from all the colleges and universities that accept them. This fact alone essentially precludes those with financial need from applying early.

In contrast, wealthy students -- whose parents can pay their full college costs without financial aid -- have no problem applying for and accepting early-decision admissions.

The Cooke Foundation study found that only 16 percent of high-achieving students from families with annual incomes below $50,000 applied for college admission on an early-decision basis in the 2013-14 academic year. But 29 percent of high-achieving students from families with incomes above $250,000 applied on an early-decision basis. Is it any wonder that so many more upper-income students gain admission?

The blatant unfairness of early admissions was obvious even before they became as widespread as they are today. In 2006, Harvard University, Princeton University and the University of Virginia eliminated early admissions to give all students a fairer chance of being admitted. But unfortunately, they later had to reinstate early-action admissions to remain competitive when essentially all other colleges and universities offering early admissions refused to drop the policy.

Derek Bok, who was president of Harvard in 2006 when early admissions were dropped, justified the move in words that are as true today as they were 10 years ago. “Early-admission programs tend to advantage the advantaged,” Bok said. “Students from more sophisticated backgrounds and affluent high schools often apply early to increase their chances of admission, while minority students and students from rural areas, other countries and high schools with fewer resources miss out. Students needing financial aid are disadvantaged by binding early-decision programs that prevent them from comparing aid packages. Others who apply early and gain admission to the college of their choice have less reason to work hard at their studies during their final year of high school.”

Similarly, a 2011 study of early admissions -- published in Teachers College Record and supported by the Center for Enrollment Research, Policy and Practice at the University of Southern California -- concluded that “those who enroll through early deadlines tend to be white, with higher family incomes and parents with greater levels of education.” The study added that “early decision in particular works as a sort of class-based affirmative action that gives wealthier applicants a ‘plus’ factor: a higher likelihood of being admitted than if they applied under the regular-decision deadline.”

The sad truth is that in our nation that proclaims itself “the land of opportunity,” the wealthy have far greater educational opportunities than the poor. A 2014 White House report explains just how much greater when it states, “While half of all people from high-income families have a bachelor’s degree by age 25, just one in 10 people from low-income families do.”

When the wealthy are getting college degrees at a rate five times higher than the poor, something is terribly wrong and unjust. And it’s not only the low-income students who are being hurt. Our nation is being deprived of the talents of young people who could go on to become doctors, scientists, entrepreneurs, teachers and government leaders -- and who could fill many other vital jobs if only they had the chance to get a college education.

Barriers to equal educational opportunity for academically qualified students need to come down. One of the first to go -- and one that won’t require massive government spending to eliminate -- should be early-admissions policies in our nation’s colleges and universities.

Bio

Former New York City Schools Chancellor Harold O. Levy is executive director of the Cooke Foundation, which has awarded over $152 million in scholarships to nearly 2,200 high-achieving students from low-income families and over $90 million in grants to organizations that serve such students.

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