Perspective: Early Decision Does Not Disadvantage Low-Income Students

Marc Todd ’20

Photo by Marc Todd

According to The Atlantic, the origin of early decision dates back to the late 1950s with smaller New England colleges enticing students with better admission rates in return for binding decisions to attend. 

The process of applying to college has drastically evolved over the past half-century, and early decision is no exception. Top-tier colleges and universities are currently experiencing a nationwide increase in early decision applications as potential students perceive early decision as an “easier” admissions pathway to their dream college or university. 

The Washington Post published an article in 2015 titled “College admissions: The Early Decision advantage” where they analyzed the early decision acceptance rates of 64 prominent colleges and universities. 

Interestingly, Davidson College was cited as having the highest share of early decision admits—approximately 60 percent—amongst all the colleges and universities analyzed. 

Furthermore, Davidson has seen a 13.6 percent increase in early decision applications since the class of 2019 (638 applications) to our most recent class of 2022 (725 applications).

Considering Davidson’s unique position regarding the high number of early decision admits, as well as our increasing number of early decision applicants alongside that of other elite liberal arts colleges and universities, I believe constructive dialogues about the benefits and harms of Davidson’s early decision process are warranted. 

In the petition circulating Davidson’s campus, the Students for Just Admissions addressed a broad range of issues under the umbrella of “early decision.” 

The organization noted that students applying early decision to Davidson have a higher acceptance rate than that of regular decision students, but “the binding Early Decision contract denies applicants the opportunity to compare financial aid offers from other schools.” This quote implies that because of the higher acceptance rate for early decision applicants, lower-income applicants are at a disadvantage because they are unable to benefit from this acceptance rate due to an inability to compare financial aid packages. 

Davidson’s Admissions and Financial Aid Office admits there is a selectivity advantage to applying early decision, and justifies this on their website saying, “statistically speaking, a higher percentage of our applicants are admitted under an early decision plan than under regular decision.” 

Davidson’s use of “statistically speaking” is intentional because the admissions processes for early and regular decision are both need-blind (for domestic students and permanent residents) as well as highly-selective and holistic. 

The Students for Just Admissions incorrectly understand the balanced admission processes between regular and early decision applicants, and compound upon this error by wrongfully asserting that early decision excludes lower-income applicants. 

If the Students for Just Admissions had questioned the disadvantages of early decision for lower-income applicants 10 years ago, I would be writing in support of their critique of an unfair admission process. 

However, as I mentioned previously, early decision has drastically evolved, with the majority of these changes occurring within the last decade. 

In 2011, federal law required every college and university in the United States to have a net price calculator, which is calculated according to federal law. The net price calculator allows applicants to determine their expected family contribution (EFC). 

Financial need of an applicant is determined by taking the cost of attendance (COA) minus EFC. Davidson College is committed to meeting 100 percent of a family’s calculated financial need, and that demonstrated need is met by the Davidson Trust. 

Following the 2011 federal law, critics of early decision pointed to the inability of schools to offer firm aid packages to early decision applicants. 

According to the Wall Street Journal article “The Decision That Hurts Your Chances of Getting Into Harvard” published in 2018, this critique was reconciled by a 2016 federal policy change that allowed students to submit financial aid paperwork early enough to receive firm financial aid packages with their early decision acceptance. 

With these federal policy changes, an applicant’s early decision financial aid package is equally concrete to that of a regular decision applicant. 

Following these two major changes in 2011 and 2016, critics have turned to arguing that early decision as a whole is inherently disadvantaging lower-income applicants by denying the applicant the chance to compare all financial aid packages received. 

First and foremost, early decision is not binding when the financial aid package provided to the applicant is too low for attendance. Because of the net price calculator and Davidson’s commitment to meeting 100 percent of calculated financial need, no applicant applying to Davidson should be unaware of the expected family contribution. 

If both early and regular decision applicants undergo the same holistic and need-blind admission process, and applicants’ expected family contributions are provided beforehand by the net price calculator, the only substantiated criticism of early decision is that an applicant cannot compare merit scholarships. 

I want to emphasize what Christopher Gruber, the Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Davidson, said regarding early decision applicants: “Today, we have the same percentage of those qualified for financial aid in early decision as we do in regular decision.” 

These words are identical to the ones Gruber provided to the 2015 Washington Post article. The applicant pools for early decision and regular decision have the same demonstrated financial need, so how can the Students for Just Admissions present early decision as being unfair to lower-income applicants?

Lastly, in a 2018 article titled “Early Admission’s Effect on Financial Aid,” The Wall Street Journal explains how students accepted early decision can possibly benefit from more generous financial aid packages and merit scholarships. 

This is exceptionally relevant considering Davidson’s merit scholarships are evaluated equally amongst early and regular decision applicants. 

Thus, an early decision applicant is provided the same opportunity, if not more, for merit scholarships. Simply put, early decision is a “no-lose” proposition for both low- and high-income applicants. 

If the Students for Just Admissions want to provide equal opportunities in admissions, perhaps eliminating Davison’s application fee or incorporating early action alongside early decision would be more beneficial avenues of discussion. 

Marc Todd is a Chemistry and Biology double major from Cary, North Carolina. Contact him at matodd@davidson.edu.

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