College Enrollment News Insights

Can an Early Decision Emphasis Help Meet Fall ’21 Enrollment Goals?

by Bob Massa and Bill Conley

Exactly a year ago, and in the shadow of a Department of Justice threat, members of the National Association of College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) reluctantly voted to remove from its Code of Ethics language that prevented colleges from recruiting students who had committed to another institution.  They also struck language that forbade the offering of incentives to get students to apply under exclusive Early Decision (ED) programs.

In the months that followed, these changes felt seismic, especially among the most vulnerable institutions on the prestige food chain.  Many (including these authors) predicted “the Wild West” in college admissions. 

A handful of colleges did offer ED incentives, and the  ED yield – typically in the 95% range for many colleges– did dip below that level (in some cases into the low 80s), suggesting that ED students were increasingly “poached” by other institutions.  But the admissions world did not fall apart, and in general, colleges competed for students as they had in the past.  We know now, of course, that well over half of reporting colleges did not meet their enrollment goals by July 1 and that overall,  undergraduate enrollment at private, four-year institutions is down almost 4 percent from last fall.  This sets the stage for, perhaps, a quite different recruitment year ahead.

While enrollment leaders fiddled with the changing rules of recruitment engagement, the major event occurred in March 2020.  None of us could have foreseen how the COVID-19 global pandemic would upend higher education and, indeed, every segment of our society. 

It is difficult to predict with any degree of certainty what will happen in the first full COVID admissions season, but we can be sure of one thing:  the competition for new students will be fiercer than ever this year. As a result, the purposeful use of binding Early Decision, where students still must declare their intent to enroll if admitted and if affordable,  must be a tool in a college’s tactical arsenal necessary to secure the number of new students needed to achieve revenue goals for the 2021-22 academic year.

Clearly, even at an 80% yield, ED programs heavily recruited and optimally executed will provide a strong base toward achieving the required enrollment and net revenue targets.  For the next several years, colleges will struggle to meet their goals as the demographics shift.  Targeting students for a group that will have a high yield is a way not only to increase the chances of success for enrolling the entire new class but also contribute to managing the institutional acceptance rate, which is likely to steeply increase as regular decision yield continues its downward trend as evidenced by the large numbers of institutions missing their enrollment targets.

Many highly selective schools had, in the recent past, enough qualified ED applicants to enroll half of their entering class or more under ED.  These schools turned down qualified students in ED to keep their numbers below 50 percent of the class.  But this year is different.  Even with the potential of poaching after deposit, ED enrollments accounting for close to or more than half of the class will considerably increase the chances of meeting targets that are critical to long-term institutional survival.

Nationally, there has long been dialogue about Early Decision and how it discriminates against economically disadvantaged students: parents do not know about early college programs; it curtails comparison “price shopping” for needy families; it “forces” students to make a decision to enroll before they are ready to make that decision; and it creates a stressful second wave of applications after they are denied or deferred under ED ( a guidance counselor’s work is never done).

But it does not have to be that way.  It is true that many low-income students are not aware of early-decision programs because they are the first generation in their family to go to college and attend high schools where counselors are responsible for 1,000 or more students each. But colleges and universities should promote early decision in all their search communications, on their websites, and in their brochures. And those of us who are committed to enrolling low-income students will go out of our way to connect with them and to make them aware of early programs, providing financial aid packages that are every bit as competitive as the ones extended to Regular Decision students who yield at a fraction of the ED rate.

Taking tests in time for ED deadlines in early November has always been a source of concern for disadvantaged students and their ability to successfully apply under ED. The fact is that many schools are now test-optional, if not test-blind.  A good number of them have signed a recent NACAC statement saying that they will not hold the absence of test scores against a student.  This helps all students in the process, of course, but particularly disadvantaged students who did not even have access to the tests during the height of the pandemic in the U.S.

We always tell students that they should apply for a binding early-decision program only if parents know how much they are willing and able to contribute toward college expenses and if they are not interested in comparing offers from other institutions. If they receive enough to make attendance possible, and the college is the student’s first choice, then the process has successfully concluded. If, however, they want to shop for the best deal, then early decision is not for them. This is particularly true in the post DOJ-era, where a committed ED student remains eligible for other colleges to recruit.  If “the best deal” is secondary to getting enough aid to enroll in the college of choice, then ED can be a win/win for the college and the student.

It is important for colleges to remain true to their missions during this time of stress.  It is equally as important to do everything possible, within acceptable practices, of course, to ensure that enrollment and revenue goals are met.  Increasing the number of ED applications admits, and enrollments, with the right amount of financial aid, can give an institution a desperately needed boost toward successfully enrolling its next class of first-year students.


Bob Massa and Bill Conley are principals and co-founders of Enrollment Intelligence Now, a consulting firm that specializes in mentoring and coaching new VPs of Enrollment and Deans of Admission, in addition to conducting admissions and financial audits, staffing analyses, and vendor management protocol.  Between them, they have 85 years of experience in admissions, financial aid, and enrollment management, having served as the chief enrollment officer at Johns Hopkins, Case Western Reserve, D

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