It won’t be long before colleges that have Early Action and Early Decision programs will start notifying students with decisions. This group of applicants is of particular interest this year, because colleges who offer early programs usually take a high percentage—as much as 60%—of their admitted students from these early programs. Given the hesitancies brought to college applications due to COVID, there has been speculation that this might be an unusual year for the early programs, one way or the other.
(If you need some help remembering what these programs are, you’re not alone—try this quick reference.)
We’re about two weeks away from hearing decisions, but news about the number of students applying early is out, and it’s uneven. As a rule, the most highly selective colleges in the country are seeing a significant increase in the number of early applications. This has been the case for the last several years, so this could represent business as usual; it could also mean students want to secure a spot in the class while they are still available, should changes in the COVID situation over the winter lead to an increase in students interested in applying to colleges away from home.
This is less the case with the selective colleges—still tough to get into, but not as crazy tough—which are generally seeing early applications even with last year. Since COVID is everywhere, it’s hard to say why colleges that admit 25% of their students aren’t seeing more early applicants than colleges that admit 7% of their students, but the differences in application data between these two sets of schools has always been a little mind boggling, since both schools have far more applicants than they have room to admit.
We’re all now waiting for the next shoe to drop, to see just how many of these record or average classes are going to be admitted through early programs. Conventional wisdom suggests colleges with Early Decision programs will, in all likelihood, admit a large percentage of their class early. ED programs have always helped colleges navigate uncertain times, since a yes to an ED applicant means the student must attend that college. It also earmarks financial aid money early, giving the college earlier insight into its budget.
EA decisions may have a little more flex in them this year, since saying yes to an EA applicant doesn’t lock them in to a firm commitment—it just gives the student an early answer. The plus to colleges with this program has traditionally been data saying students are more likely to attend a college that says yes early in the application process, but given the economic uncertainties that accompany COVID, affordability may trump that tendency this year. Without the promise of some kind of early incentive—scholarships in particular—EA programs may be the wild card this year.
The only heightened risk ED colleges may take on is also economic. Colleges must meet the financial need of all admitted ED applicants—if they don’t, the student is free to walk away from the commitment. But what happens if the college meets that need in December, only to have a spring shakeup in the economy redefine just how much ED admits really do need? Is there a moral requirement for colleges to meet these genuinely higher needs, or have they honored the spirit of ED by meeting the demonstrated need at the time of acceptance? Either way, if the end result is an increased number of students who abandon their ED commitment, the face of college admission could be in for a significant change.