The Early Round of College Admissions Is For All

Early Decision Advantage, Financial Aid Offers, Shopping Financial Aid
Yes, America’s elite colleges love their legacy applicants. Yes, they love their recruited athletes and their development cases. But they also love their students from low-income families. They also love their underrepresented minorities and their first-generation college students. These are all coveted groups by our nation’s elite universities (photo credit: Derrick Smith).

The Early Decision / Early Action round offers its advantages in terms of admissions statistics. For the Class of 2023, 2.8% of Regular Decision applicants earned admission to Harvard; 13.4% of Harvard’s Early Action applicants this same year earned admission to the Cambridge, Massachusetts institution. These statistics are emblematic of the Early advantage at just about all of America’s highly selective universities, including every Ivy League school. But many argue that these very admissions statistics are deceiving, that the Early round of admission is really a playground for the well heeled: for legacies, for development cases, for recruited athletes in posh sports like squash, water polo, and tennis.

People Discourage Applying Early By Arguing the Early Round is a Playground for the Privileged

These same folks who argue that the Early round is chock full of these sorts of affluent applicants — and they are not wrong to suggest these students apply Early — so often then make the leap that regular kids from middle and low-income families have no advantage in applying Early. And that is a giant, dangerous leap of logic that discourages talented young people from across the socio-economic spectrum, young people these elite schools covet, from applying Early when the odds would be so much more in their favor.

But if the Early Round is a Playground for the Privileged, the Regular Round is a Playground for Other Coveted Groups

Besides, by this confounding logic, if the Early round is a playground for the privileged, then the Regular round is chock full of underrepresented minorities and students who will be the first in their families to attend college, coveted groups by highly selective colleges. So if you’re a white, middle-class parent who vociferously argues that your white middle-class child is afforded no advantage in applying Early, as you so often argue in the comments section of our blog with a strong undercurrent of racism (yes, we said it!), answer this: how exactly will it be easier for your child to get in during the Regular round as they compete against students who come from low-income families and/or are underrepresented minorities and/or will be the first in their immediate families to attend college? We know. Crickets.

People Discourage Applying Early By Arguing Financial Aid Offers Can’t Be Compared

You see, these Early Decision / Early Action naysayers, in addition to making it seem like middle and low-income young people need not apply Early since they won’t enjoy the significant statistical advantage also vehemently discourage these students from applying Early with another tactic. They say, ever so matter-of-factly, that by applying Early, a student can’t weigh different financial aid offers from various universities. These naysayers make this argument as though it’s the ultimate mic drop in the conversation about applying Early but it’s an argument that is grounded in no truth. Let’s address it.

First, let’s give these Early Decision / Early Action naysayers the floor. A recent commenter to one of our blogs that focused on the mistake of not applying Early wrote, “I am bothered by one aspect of your argument here. [You] dismiss the need for people to see their financial aid offers as a deterrent to applying ED.” Another commenter chimed in, “I respectively disagree with Ivy Coach on ED for students who require need based aid. Why? Not all schools give equal packages based on Net Price Calculator; and just because you may demonstrate need of X, that doesn’t mean the school has to offer you x. They may offer you x-20%. That is up to their discretion. There is no law compelling schools to meet 100% of your need. The sad truth is ED does not allow you to leverage competing financial aid offers from other schools. With ED, you either take it or leave it, and you can only leave it if the financial aid package doesn’t provide you enough money to attend.”

And it’s not like these folks just write into our blog; they so often also publish articles perpetuating the myth that applying Early is disadvantageous to middle and low-income young people. In a recent article entitled “Why I Regret Applying Early” for SheKnows, Justina Huddleston laments, “My school guidance counselor told me I was a shoe-in.” While she says she made friends at the college she attended, she asserts, “I would have made friends at any college.” And then she writes, “My hope for teens who are applying for schools is that they have better guidance counselors, who help them understand that there are extreme financial implications to choosing a school, and that just because you’re a ‘shoe-in’ for one doesn’t mean you shouldn’t look at others.”

But It’s Not Necessary to Compare Financial Aid Offers

Allow us to take a deep breath before we address all these nonsensical arguments. And, as an aside, why did this young woman apply to a school at which her school counselor said she’d be a “shoe-in” in the Early round? Students should be applying to reach schools in the Early round — not impossible reaches but reach schools nonetheless. They certainly shouldn’t be applying to safety schools. That defies the logic of the Early advantage and, we would argue, in part explains her regret. In any case, it’s time to debunk this “shopping financial aid offers” argument once and for all. Let’s put it to bed.

College applicants who need financial aid can apply Early and figure out the approximate amount each school will offer them before they even apply. That’s right. It’s truly that simple. Contrary to the argument of Ms. Huddleston and the cited commenters to our blog, net price calculators are federally mandated. If a school were to have a faulty net price calculator, you could say that our United States Department of Justice — not exactly academia’s best friend right now under the current administration — would take action. And if the aid of the applicant is not met by the school, then the Early Decision binding agreement is null and void in any case.

You see, each school has its own net price calculator. It’s not a one stop shop like the Common Application. Rather, each and every school that receives federal funding is required to maintain their own calculator. For example, some schools consider a family’s home equity/mortgage in their net price calculation, while others do not. Don’t believe us? Here’s Yale’s net price calculator. Here’s Stanford’s net price calculator. And if your retort, “Yeah, well, that’s all well and good but colleges can sometimes change financial aid offers,” that is absolutely true in a small percentage of cases — but it’s typically only because of a calculation error due to a family submitting partial or outdated financial information.

The Real Reason We Suspect People Make the Illogical Must Shop Financial Aid Offers Argument

So why do people continue to make this ill-conceived argument that one shouldn’t apply Early because then one can’t shop financial aid offers? We’re not entirely sure, but we surely have our suspicions. Chief among them: these people so often want colleges to match their demonstrated want, not their demonstrated need. Parents love bragging in grocery store lines and at baseball games about how much scholarship money their children receive. As our loyal readers know, Ivy League schools not not offer merit-based scholarships, only need-based aid so when you hear a mom say her son got a full ride to Princeton, smile, nod, and know that you’ve just been told an untruth. But that’s why, we’d argue, these parents insist on the need to shop offers, to apply in the Regular Decision round. Unless, of course, they were merely fooled by all the myths perpetuated by the Early Decision / Early Action naysayers. In any case, we believe it’s important for our readers to know their likely true motivation, even if they don’t realize it themselves, in perpetuating this myth of college admissions.

The Early Decision / Early Action Round is Not For the Privileged Few, But For All

The Early Decision / Early Action round is not for the privileged few. It is not for only legacies, development cases, and recruited athletes. It is for all. It is for a student who will be the first in his family to go to college, whose parents well up with tears when he receives his offer of admission in mid-December. It is for an undocumented student who grew up her whole life here in America, excelling academically while her parents worked long hours and cared for her siblings. It is for a student from inner-city Baltimore who yearns to receive the finest education in all the world. It is for an international student from Ho Chi Minh City who wishes to receive an American education. It is for Charlotte Simmons, a white, working class young woman from the fictional Sparta, North Carolina who dreamed, in the Tom Wolfe classic, of escaping her small town and learning from Nobel Prize winners at Dupont University (a.k.a. Duke University if you ask us!). Yes, the Early Decision / Early Action round is for legacies and athletic recruits. But it is also for the Charlotte Simmonses of the world. It is for everyone.

Hat tip to Ivy Coach’s Jayson Weingarten!


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  • Just Talkin' says:

    Is it not the case that, where two schools determine an applicant has the same “need,” one can offer more loans versus more grant/aid? And isn’t that a significant difference? It does seem to be a legitimate point where the “need” is being met through methods that have different real world effects. Or am I missing something?

  • Joe says:

    There are a few caveats here that you miss.

    First, and this should be obvious: students shouldn’t apply to a school in it’s ED round because it’s ED rate to RD rate ratio is better than that for school 2 unless they know this is their top choice school

    Second your strategy really only works at a handful of need blind schools. Applying ED at a need aware school based on the Net Price Calculator is a very risky strategy.

    Third everything here is an opportunity cost. When you pick an ED or SCEA school, you are walking away from ED or SCEA at other schools. So what is the real advantage your are getting?

    Looking at the overall ED rate and overall RD rate is meaningless. If you are a middle class white kid with no hooks applying to Harvard, your SCEA to RD likelihood ratio may not be the 3:1 that you think it is, it may be closer to 1.5:1 once your remove the legacies, athletes, etc from the SCEA pool. For unhooked Asians it may be closer to 1.2:1. While better than 1:1, it’s not a HUGE advantage. So before a student places their ED/SCEA bet on a school, it’s really important to compare different schools for the same demographic that the student belongs to. Now colleges don’t make it easy to do that, so you have to take the ED advantage with a healthy pinch of salt and do some analysis.

    If you pick the wrong school and place the wrong bet, you are going to come up empty in Dec.

    So if the ED/ RD admit ratio is not as high as it seems for unhooked applicants at highly selective schools, it might be better to preserve your option to extract maximum merit aid at a lower tier school and then decide later which one you want to go to.

    I would personally give up a few points of ED admit advantage at Brown or Cornell, to have the option of being able to compare a free tuition option at Duke or Vanderbilt vs Brown in May specially if I am an unhooked student, but that’s me. Others may think that is dumb.

  • Enologisto says:

    You’ve missed the most important advantage: addition by subtraction. SCEA and ED schools limit you to one. If you’re applying SCEA to Princeton, guess who’s not in the applicant pool? That’s right. All the kids that went SCEA or ED somewhere else (Stanford, Harvard, Yale, etc.) AND all the kids that are waiting to compare offers in the RD round. They will be in the RD pool, though. What a 15% ED admit rate translates to for a given candidate is the realm of pure speculation for those outside admissions committees.

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