by Bob Massa and Bill Conley
The June 2023 Supreme Court ruling striking down the consideration of race as a factor in college admissions has reignited calls for the elimination of legacy preferences and early decision (ED) programs. Yet by no means is the rallying cry to dispose of ED “new” news.
For more than 20 years, going back at least to the September 2001 Atlantic Monthly cover story, “The Early-Decision Racket,” early decision has been widely criticized: both as a self-serving tool for colleges that use ED to improve their ranking position by raising yield and lowering admit rates and as a practice that disadvantages low-income students, who are far less likely to apply early decision and reap the benefit of a higher likelihood of acceptance to some of the country’s most selective colleges.
Throughout this time, as ED has time and again come under scrutiny, we have individually authored (2002, 2017) and co-written (2020, 2021) opinion pieces on ED. Spoiler alert: each time, we came down in favor of continuing it.
Once again, we feel there are ample reasons to retain ED programs. We fully acknowledge that the Supreme Court decision could well hinder, if not reverse, efforts to increase access to higher education and that the increasing attacks by states on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives further inhibit these efforts. However, we believe the elimination of ED would be symbolic at best, and counter-productive to access at worst.
As we have done in the past, it is important to place ED in context. A 2022 report from Education Reform Now found that only about 12 percent of four-year colleges reported receiving any early decision applications in 2020. Thus, eliminating ED programs might have symbolic impact but would do little to level the playing field if that’s what ED critics imagine its elimination would accomplish.
Meanwhile, eliminating ED could limit access to these elite institutions. A significant portion of “twelve percenters” maintain Division III athletics programs (both men’s and women’s) and employ ED as Division I institutions use the letter of intent. According to a study of elite college enrollment issued in July 2023, “recruited athletes are admitted with much lower academic standards — and are disproportionately affluent.” For selective institutions, ED is used to secure commitment from most of its recruited athletes. If ED was no longer available, these colleges might well have to admit three quarterbacks in regular decision in the hope of enrolling one. Such a scenario across multiple sports teams reduces the number of admission offers open to non-athletes and, per the referenced study, less wealthy applicants.
ED’s implementation is often misunderstood or misrepresented as requiring students to make a binding pledge to enroll before they can review their financial aid offer. In fact, students admitted under ED can decline the offer if the financial aid package is insufficient or the family simply determines that the college is unaffordable. We know from experience and through our consulting work that colleges offering ED options work very closely with students and families to make it work.
In the past year, much has been written about “direct admissions” as the potential answer to the access puzzle. Colleges that offer “direct admissions” make offers of admission — often without financial aid — to students (who have made their academic information available) without requiring them to go through a lengthy admissions process first. It is too soon to tell if this system will work, but one must wonder if receiving dozens of admissions offers, many from colleges they know nothing about, will serve a student well. By contrast, ED provides a channel for the student who has fully engaged in the search process and knows well the “fit” this college offers.
We believe that the “twelve percenters” seek ED applicant pools that are increasingly diverse in all ways– socioeconomically, academically, geographically, and in personal qualities. The Supreme Court’s prohibition of the consideration of race removes recruitment and selection tools, narrowly tailored, that served as go-to strategies for increasing access. However, ED is neither a de facto barrier to access nor, as too often linked with legacy admissions, serving primarily the already advantaged.
A better solution than the elimination of ED is for all colleges and universities, not just the “twelve percenters,” to do a better job of visiting and actively recruiting students from underserved high schools. Clearly, a targeted student recruitment effort must include promotion of the opportunities and advantages of ED to these students. Essential to that effort is a clear and unequivocal commitment to making their institutions affordable. Colleges must double down on exploding the myth that early decision is off the table for students who need financial aid, and they must actively tell all students that if they need financial help, there is absolutely no risk in applying under a binding ED program because the “escape clause” lies in the college’s affordability.
Calls for the elimination of ED imply that so doing would improve access for underrepresented students. Without a change in how students are recruited and aided, this is an empty cry. We believe the conversation should instead focus on ways to recruit and support low-income students, including by using ED programs that provide sufficient financial aid to bolster low-income student enrollment.
(this article was published in Inside Higher Ed, January 29, 2024)