In the last three years, long-established patterns of college admissions have been completely disrupted. This is often attributed to the impact of COVID-19, but the pandemic only accelerated trends that had been building for a decade. Perhaps the most significant change is the fact that, while most colleges struggle with declining enrollment, top-tier colleges have seen a sharp rise in demand. Two distinct models of admissions have evolved — one for top-tier colleges and another for all the rest.
There is one aspect of the new admissions environment that is of special interest to students aspiring to attend a particular top-tier college. It is the growing disparity in the percentage of early applicants admitted in the fall compared to the percentage admitted in during regular admissions in the spring. Strategically, applying early is an advantage to a student if they seek admission to a top-tier school.
Early Admissions Programs
Top-tier colleges review some applications ahead of most of them through programs referred to collectively as Early Admissions (EA). The most popular EA program is Early Decision (ED), which has clear advantages for both students and colleges.
Over 450 colleges offer ED programs, including many of the nation’s most highly selective institutions. Students applying via ED submit an application to one college between mid-October and early November and receive a decision in mid-December. The applicant agrees to a binding commitment to enroll in the college if accepted. This arrangement enables college administrators to admit highly desirable, well-qualified applicants to their freshman class before other colleges have an opportunity to admit them.
ED’s advantage to students is that there is usually a far greater probability that they’ll be admitted via ED than if they waited to apply in the Regular Decision (RD) cycle. This encourages students to apply to their “dream school” — one at which they have low odds of acceptance in the RD cycle. ED works best for highly qualified students who strongly prefer one school over all others and for whom affordability is not an issue. This last factor explains why ED admissions skews wealthy and white from a demographic perspective.
Trends in ED Admissions
In the 2021-22 admissions cycle, top-tier schools were deluged with ED applications, even more so than in 2020-21. As a result, they admitted a smaller percentage of ED applicants than in prior years. The reason that ED admission rates declined was the huge number of applications received. The low percentage of ED admittees drew attention away from the growing disparity in the percentage of ED admissions compared to RD admissions.
Institutions such as Vassar, Middlebury, Wesleyan, and Smith admitted over 40% of ED applicants and Hampden-Sydney, Skidmore, Tulane, and Villanova admitted over 50%. Holy Cross admitted 82% of ED applicants and Fairfield admitted 87%. The differential between the rates of ED and RD admissions has become so substantial that it can no longer be explained as a pandemic-related phenomenon.
Information about ED is useful to students because ED can double, triple, and even quadruple their odds of admission to certain schools compared to applying RD. Table A, below, shows the order of magnitude of ED over RD admissions in 2021-22. For example, at Washington University in St. Louis, the ED admissions rate was 27% compared to 8% for RD, a multiple of 3.4 times. Therefore, the probability of an ED applicant being accepted was 340% higher than that of an RD applicant.
Top Colleges with ED Admissions Rates 2+ Times RD Rates
|Institution||ED/RD Multiple||Admit % (ED)||Admit % (RD)||Yield %|
|Johns Hopkins Univ.||3.0||15||5||63|
|Washington and Lee||3.00||48||16||57|
|Univ. of Virginia||2.5||32||13||30|
|College of Holy Cross||2.4||82||34||33|
(*) The ED admissions rate for liberal arts colleges in New England is skewed high at the colleges indicated. They are among the 11 highly selective schools in the New England Small College Athletic Conference. The others are Bates, Colby, Trinity, Connecticut, and Tufts. The ED acceptance rates at these schools is high partly because the applicant pool includes recruited athletes, who are almost always admitted. Students with exceptional talent in a performing art, especially music, are also admitted to these schools at a high rate during the ED cycle.
Yield is Important to Colleges
The outcome of applying to a college that matters most to a student is whether they are accepted or not. The outcome that matters most to college administrators is whether an accepted student adds to their yield by enrolling in their school. Yield is the percentage of admitted students who enroll in the college. If a college accepts five students and three of them enroll, the college’s yield is 60%. If only one enrolls, the yield is 20%.
A high yield has a positive effect on a college’s reputation, rankings, and revenue. A high yield improves the efficacy of a college’s operating plan for the next academic year. It indirectly encourages more applications from high income, well-qualified students because it raises a school’s profile, enabling the college to be even more competitive in the future. Aside from the Ivies and a few other schools that always produce excellent yields, colleges work hard to sustain as high a yield as possible.
ED Admissions Policies Are Counterintuitive
There is one aspect of ED admissions that is counterintuitive. Based on the college’s own analysis, the lower the odds that an applicant will enroll if admitted during the RD cycle, the higher the odds of them being admitted during the ED cycle.
If an ED applicant has the right qualifications, the probability of their early admission depends on the propensity to enroll of past admittees with similar credentials and attributes. To assess this probability, colleges develop a mathematical model and use it with a database that includes factors such as demonstrated interest, geographic location, financial need, yield from the high school, likely peer college competitors, and student’s potential for merit scholarships and tuition discounts.
Depending on their model’s output, a college may defer an ED applicant who is strongly inclined to enroll because he or she will remain likely to enroll in the RD cycle. On the other hand, if an applicant is a highly desirable addition to the freshman class but, as indicated by the model, has a low probability of enrolling in the RD cycle, the college is more likely to admit him or her in the ED phase because the seek to prevent the possibility that the student might enroll elsewhere. Colleges prefer to snag great students as soon as they can. That’s why ED is advantageous for students who fit a certain profile.