The orange invasion is back. Stores have once again exploded with pumpkin spice—and this year it started long before Labor Day. From craft beers and cereal to coffee and candles, it’s everywhere you turn. To be honest, I am not a fan, but I know some people who eagerly anticipate its resurgence each fall.
Early Decision (ED) is like the pumpkin spice of college admission—every year it returns and seems to spread uncontrollably. Just as unique pumpkin products add an edge to autumn palettes, enrollment leaders perpetually find new ways to use this tool in admission. This year, with the pandemic and an increased level of uncertainty, ED is poised to add a zing to admission that, while attractive to some, is not welcomed by all.
If you are a college-bound student approaching the application experience, here are some considerations as you weigh the possibility of applying early.
Early Decision is a binding application where a student commits to enrolling if admitted. While not all schools use ED plans, many colleges offer two rounds of Early Decision: ED1, usually in early November; and ED2, often in early January. Some colleges also now allow applicants to apply ED on a rolling basis, meaning that at any time during the admission cycle an applicant can decide to enter into a binding agreement in consideration of their candidacy. Students submitting ED applications can apply to other colleges simultaneously, through non-binding plans, but must withdraw these applications if accepted.
Early Decision is different from Early Action (EA), which is a non-binding admission plan with deadlines typically between mid-October and late November. EA allows students to learn where they are admitted (or not) sooner, and enables colleges to both have a better sense for their applicant pool, and to get their hooks into students earlier in the process. To complicate things even further, a few schools have Restrictive Early Action (REA) or Single Choice Early Action (SCEA), which are hybrid admission plans allowing students to apply and receive decisions early under a non-binding application. In doing so, however, they agree not to apply simultaneously to another school under a binding ED plan. If all of that doesn’t make you want to smash a pumpkin against a wall, I don’t know what will.
Why do applicants use it?
While in an ideal admission experience, ED is reserved for those students who feel they have found the school of their dreams, the reality can be more like Linus's search for the “Great Pumpkin.” Applicants go looking for a college to which they can apply ED with the illusion that they can make it be the perfect fit. ED applications have surged for three main reasons: athletics, advantage, and anxiety.
It is common for colleges and university coaches to push recruited athletes to apply ED. The arrangement between the athletic department and admission office varies at every school, and also depends on the athletic division and/or conference in which they compete. However, for a coach to formally support a student-athlete as an applicant and recruit, they want to have confidence that the student will commit to attending if admitted. Therefore, many coaches make their support contingent upon an ED application. At some highly selective colleges, recruited athletes can account for over a third of the incoming first-year class. This drives up the percentage of students applying and enrolling, through ED.
Is there an advantage to applying ED? In most cases, the answer is, “yes”—if you take a purely statistical approach, the odds of being admitted ED is sometimes more than double those of being accepted in the Regular Decision (RD) pool. With an increasing number of colleges enrolling over half their first-year class through ED, there are proportionally fewer spots available during RD where there is a larger group of applicants. As we learned above, recruited athletes skew these numbers, as do other institutional enrollment priorities. College access programs like Questbridge and Posse for first-generation to college and low-income students are often included in ED statistics as well. Students must really unpack the admit rate for the standard applicant. However, generally speaking, there is an advantage. Applying ED is the ultimate way for a student to demonstrate interest in a college. It is also an ideal approach for colleges to increase their “yield”—the percentage of admitted students who enroll—considered an indicator of quality and prestige.
Sadly, in my over two decades of counseling students in college admission, it has become increasingly transactional. I often hear students express a desire to “get through it” or “get it over.” The experience of applying to college in many cases has been loaded with anxiety and is seen as a process to endure, rather than an opportunity to embrace. Some applicants conduct their college search around finding a school where they will apply ED and be done, instead of allowing a school to rise to the top organically. This forced approach to exploring a good match is misguided and can easily lead to “buyer’s remorse.” With over a third of all college students transferring schools at least once during their higher education, one must wonder if the pressure to lock in an acceptance is putting undue stress on applicants. Anthony Jones is the associate provost & assistant vice-president of enrollment management at Howard University. He says “Students should work hard to escape the temptation to “just get in” and be more true to their future selves by honestly examining what makes up the real essence of the place at which they plan to expend more discretionary, and non-discretionary, energy than ever before.” He adds, “the long-term human benefit is what’s most important, not the temporary psychological high one gets from receiving that much-awaited admission offer.”
Why don’t applicants use it?
To mash this metaphor into the ground, if I told you that Pumpkin Spice Cheerios were the most exquisite delicacy on earth, would you run out and buy a warehouse full? Would you rush the decision because they were on sale or quickly selling out? I sure hope not. Early Decision is no different. First, nobody can tell you what is best for you (despite what the commercial rankings might claim). Second, buying in early because of the fear of diminishing stock is not a sound strategy. Finally, you must truly be “all in” at a college and university before being bound to an admission offer. Anything else could be a recipe for disappointment, leaving you for four years with a warehouse worth of cereal you don’t want to eat.
Another reason that ED might not be the right choice for a student is because of financial issues. Most colleges and universities will award the same financial aid package whether one is admitted through the early or regular application process. However, a binding acceptance precludes families from the ability to compare financial aid awards at several schools to see which college might be the best match for their budget and circumstances. The use of non-need-based merit scholarships and “tuition discounting” at the majority of schools means that a student might be eligible for a generous scholarship or tuition break at a school that is not their first choice. If they have already been accepted ED to that top school, they will never know what lucrative financial offers they could have had elsewhere. This inevitably perpetuates privilege and inequity in the admission process.
Another equity concern with the proliferation of ED is the disparity in access to college guidance and quality information about the college search. Those with fewer resources are playing on an unlevel field and often begin the application process later with less support. Though colleges have intentionally built out programs to reach these students, ED still favors students who have started earlier and had more encouragement.
In his new book, “Who Gets In And Why: A Year Inside College Admissions,” Jeff Selingo provides a comprehensive look at the history of ED, its growth, and how it is inexplicably tied to commercial rankings like US News and World Report. It is a must-read for many reasons, but especially for how he unpacks the intricacies of these policies and their impact. He writes, “Early Decision is a mechanism that from its start, and through several iterations since, has been fashioned to assist colleges in managing their application pools in uncertain times.” He points to the significant growth of ED applications following the uncertainty of the 2008 recession and that may very well inform what we will see in this pandemic admission cycle. If colleges lean heavily on ED as an enrollment tool, it will only exacerbate the mania in admission. Selingo writes, “Simply put, ED is one more way for schools to gain an advantage in admissions. Although schools sell ED as an insurance card that both sides can play in the game, the spoils largely go to the colleges.”
While he reports that “between Fall 2017 and Fall 2018, colleges reported an average increase of 11 percent in the number of Early Decision applicants and 10 percent in ED admits,” Selingo says to students “it’s important to take a deep breath and recognize that the vast majority of applicants to college—95 percent in any given year—don’t roll the ED dice.” Every fall, companies will push their pumpkin products to expand their brand, and colleges are no different. But this doesn’t mean you have to consume something that might taste a bit off to you.
In a recent Character Lab blog post, Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice, wrote about decision making in times of uncertainty, and what he calls “robust satisficing.” His research suggests that individuals who consider a “good enough outcome” might be happier than those who try to maximize the utility or expected value of a decision. Therefore, these robust satisficers may have less regret. Why is this relevant to college admission or even pumpkin spice? It is the “utility maximizers” who are likely to play the ED application game. Often they focus on getting the best deal or “getting in” to the most selective college without considering how that outcome might, or might not, lead to the best experience or choice.
Students, as you sip your pumpkin spice latte (or not), take a moment to step back and explore what you hope for in college and what opportunities you want to have. Resist the urge to just get the admission experience over as fast as possible, and try to tune out the messages that marketers are telling you about what is best for you. Only you know the answer to that, and it might take more time to process. If you have discovered a college that fills your cup, then ED might be for you. If not, don’t get caught up in the craze. Decide on your own time based on your own taste. By Brennan Barnard