The News
Wednesday 29 of May 2024

How the College Admissions Game is Gamed for the Wealthy

St. Mary's College in St. Mary's, Md.,Photo: The Washington Post/Bill O'Leary
St. Mary's College in St. Mary's, Md.,Photo: The Washington Post/Bill O'Leary
The question is, are you a Shopper or a Pledger?



Many of the nation’s top colleges draw more than 40 percent of their incoming freshmen through an early-application system that favors the wealthy, luring students to commit to enroll if they get in and shutting out those who want the chance to compare offers of grants and scholarships.

The binding-commitment path known as “early decision” fills roughly half of the freshman seats at highly ranked Vanderbilt, Emory, Northwestern and Tufts universities, as well as Davidson, Bowdoin, Swarthmore and Claremont McKenna colleges, among others, a Washington Post analysis found.

The Post found 37 schools where the early-decision share of enrolled freshmen in 2015 was at least 40 percent. At Duke University, the share was 47 percent, and at the University of Pennsylvania, it was 54 percent.

The rising influence of early-decision enrollment underscores a stark and growing divide in college admissions between the masses of students who apply to multiple schools through the “regular” process in quest of the best fit and deal and a privileged subset who apply early and simultaneously pledge to attend just one, without fear of cost, at a time when the sticker price for private schools often tops $60,000 a year. Call them the Shoppers and the Pledgers.

Nathan Hanshew, 17, a senior at Washington Latin Public Charter School in Washington, District of Columbia, said he applied to a dozen schools but did not opt for early decision anywhere.

“That was too risky,” he said. “You’re stuck in a bond, like a marital bond.”

Georgetown University senior Ben Brooks is one of the students benefiting from the donation to the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation. Photo by Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post
Georgetown University senior Ben Brooks is one of the students benefiting from the donation to the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation. Scholarships help balance the field in a rigged admissions game. Photo: The Washington Post/Evelyn Hockstein

Shopping around paid off hugely for Hanshew, a Polish immigrant, who learned March 17 in a surprise announcement in front of cheering classmates that he won a full-ride scholarship from George Washington University.

Kate Morrison, 17, a senior at Walt Whitman High School in Montgomery County, Maryland, said she was drawn to Bowdoin after a soccer coach there encouraged her to apply early. She visited the Maine college last spring. “I just loved it so much,” she said. “I was really, really content.” No athletic scholarship, no financial aid. But she applied early decision in the fall and was admitted Dec. 11. Her search was done.

This week, angst is cresting for traditional applicants as prestigious colleges finalize who’s in and who’s out. Ivy League decisions are scheduled to be released Thursday evening. But admitted early-decision students are tranquil; they’ve known for months where they’re going to college. Early-decision applicants also enjoy a crucial edge over the regulars: Their admission rates tend to be much higher. That’s because schools want good students who really want them, and they want to lock them down.

At Penn, the admission rate for early applicants was 24 percent for the class that entered in 2015. The total admission rate, early and regular, was 10 percent. Eric Furda, Penn’s dean of admissions, said the academic credentials of students who win early admission tend to be stronger than those admitted later in the cycle. Furda also said more early-decision students than ever are qualifying for need-based financial aid.

“This pool is becoming broader and deeper and more diverse than it’s ever been. It’s time to start telling that story,” Furda said. “I don’t want lower-income families to be told, ‘Don’t apply early decision because you’re going to need to compare financial-aid packages.’” These days, nearly as many early-decision freshmen receive need-based grants from Penn as their peers admitted in the regular cycle, he said.

The Post reviewed 2015 admissions data for 64 schools as reported through a questionnaire called the Common Data Set. The analysis covered top-60 schools on U.S. News and World Report lists of liberal arts colleges and national universities, and it found 48 schools in which early-decision admits comprised at least a third of the total enrolled class and 16 in which they comprised at least half.

While most early-decision admits enroll, a few do not. The most common reason: If a financial aid offer is deemed insufficient, an admitted student may be released from their pledge.

Within the Ivy League, Penn appears to be the most aggressive user of the early process. The early-decision share of freshmen at Dartmouth College was about 43 percent. At Brown and Cornell universities, it was about 38 percent. Columbia University, which also uses early decision, is the only Ivy League school that refuses to make public its Common Data Set reports.

Harvard, Yale and Princeton universities also allow students to apply early, but they do not require admitted students to decide on enrollment until May 1. That technique, which enables comparison shopping, is known as “early action.” Stanford, the University of Chicago, MIT and hundreds of other schools use early action.

Georgetown University’s longtime dean of admissions, Charles Deacon, said he favors early action because students should be as sure in May of where they want to attend as they were in November. He calls it a “student-centered” approach to admissions, in contrast to “enrollment management” techniques in vogue at many schools.

“No matter what anybody tells you, the early pool favors those who are more advantaged,” Deacon said. “They’re the ones who have been better advised. They know more from their families. There’s an advantage, for sure, and that plays itself out particularly at the early level.”

I wouldn’t for a minute say this is the right system for the nation.”

-John Latting, Emory University dean of admissions

Early decision, which developed gradually among elite schools from the late 1950s through the 1970s, has drawn criticism in recent years, earning a critique in a 2001 Atlantic article headlined “The Early-Decision Racket.” In 2006, the public University of Virginia announced that it was ending an early-decision program in an effort to attract more low-income students. It now uses early action.

“For us, the early-action plan makes the most sense,” U-Va. dean of admission Greg Roberts said. “And it’s more in line with our values and enrollment goals.” Most top-tier schools with early decision are private. An exception is the public College of William and Mary, in Virginia.

Though some schools have spurned the practice, the volume of early-decision applications to elite schools is growing, and some of them are filling a larger share of their seats with those applicants, making it far more difficult to get in during the normal cycle.

At Williams College, a premier liberal arts school in Massachusetts, a little more than 40 percent of freshmen come through early decision. Williams President Adam Falk said early decision provides stability for the college in what can be a volatile market, and it provides peace of mind for successful applicants who can then leave “an insane-feeling rat race” during their senior year of high school.

Jon Reider, a former Stanford admissions officer who counsels students at San Francisco University High School, said that 15 years ago, early decision was not a central part of most of his advising conversations. Now it is. Another important variable is that ultra-selective Harvard, Princeton, Stanford and Yale are “single-choice” early-action schools, meaning that students may not apply early to any other private school, with few exceptions. So students must weigh their top choice carefully, and it can feel like making a life-altering gamble.

But the calculations are much more complex than a simple ranking of choice, Reider said. Sometimes admission to that first-choice school is so tough to obtain, even in an early application, that it makes more sense to apply early decision to a second choice, or even a third choice. “You’ve got one chip,” Reider said. “One card to play. It’s an absolutely crazy system.”

Even more bewildering: Some schools offer two rounds of early decision. Some — the University of Miami, for example — offer two rounds of early decision and early action.

Charlotte Smith, 17, a senior at Walt Whitman High, put her early-decision chip on Wake Forest University, in North Carolina. Her application was deferred into the regular pool. For many applicants, that is demoralizing. For Smith, it was a relief.

“I’m actually glad,” Smith said last week as she had several applications pending and some offers in hand, including some with scholarships. It’s hard in November, she said, “to pick one school and say this has everything I want.” As students, she said, “we’re still trying on different versions of ourselves.”

Micah Guthrie, 17, a senior at Washington Latin, is shooting for liberal arts colleges but not through early decision. “I make a lot of my decisions last minute,” he said. In the fall, he said, “I really didn’t know a lot about a lot of colleges.”

Among his targets is Davidson, advertised on a sweatshirt he wore to school the other day. His mother, Michelle Guthrie, a registrar at Washington Latin, said money is a factor wherever he gets accepted. “We’ll make it happen,” she said. “But I’m hoping some scholarships come with those choices, too.”

Davidson had the highest share of early-decision admits in its entering class among colleges The Post analyzed: about 60 percent. Davidson said it is firmly committed to access, with half of the early-decision students who were admitted qualifying for need-based financial aid. That is nearly the same as the share in regular admissions who receive need-based aid. The small college, which has a robust NCAA Division I sports program, said it also relies heavily on early decision for athletic recruiting.

A few years ago, the share of early-decision students entering Emory was less than 40 percent, said John Latting, the university’s dean of admission. Now two rounds of early decision fill about half of Emory’s class. Latting said the volume of early-decision applications has doubled in the past four or five years.

“Mostly what’s going on is an unbelievably competitive marketplace” for top students, he said. “Early programs bring some calm to what is otherwise a frenzy.”

Latting said Emory uses financial aid aggressively to ensure it enrolls a diverse class. About 20 percent of freshmen have enough financial need to qualify for federal Pell grants, a sizeable share for a private university. But Latting acknowledged that early-decision applicants, the Pledgers, tend to be more affluent than the regulars, the Shoppers. That creates added pressure on schools hunting for more students from low-income families.

“I wouldn’t for a minute say this is the right system for the nation,” Latting said.