Could Early Decision Ever Go Away?

by Stuart Nachbar *


Early Decision is one of the more popular, and most loathed, practices in college admissions. The concept is simple: if you have a first-choice school, apply early. If you get accepted you must deposit, then withdraw all of your other college applications.

Interestingly, few state schools offer the opportunity to apply Early Decision. Most prefer to use Early Action, Rolling Admissions or Regular Decision practices instead. Six campuses of the State University of New York, including SUNY-Geneseo, profiled here, Salisbury University (MD), Governors State University (IL) The College of New Jersey (also profiled here), Ramapo College of New Jersey, Miami University (OH), the College of William and Mary (VA), Christopher Newport University (VA) and Virginia Tech all offer Early Decision.

I recommend Early Decision to parents and students when:

They know that it is the “dream school,” that the student is absolutely sure that s/he will enroll, if accepted.

They are sure that they can afford the school, or have information, expressed in writing to all prospective students, usually on their Web site, that the student has the specific qualifications for a scholarship.

They are being highly recruited for sports or special talents that are likely to lead to scholarships that help to make the school affordable.

The big plus for students and families is that their college search ends early if the Early Decision school says yes. They also have time to apply to other schools if that school defers or says no.

There are good reasons why colleges offer admissions through Early Decision, and even opt to run two Early Decision cycles, one that usually requires applications to be submitted in November, the other that reviews them starting in January.

* Students who apply Early Decision are more likely to have done their homework to learn if their school is their “best fit.” They do not need further persuasion to deposit.

* The admissions office can fill their freshman class faster when they are confident that they can attract a large volume of applications. Gettysburg College,  a school that I recently visited, can attract between 40 and 45 percent of their next freshman class through Early Decision—and that school is neither ultra-selective, nor does it award athletic scholarships.

* The earlier the admissions office receives deposits, the faster they can fill and begin plans to welcome the incoming freshman class. It’s more fun to work in an admissions office that can fill the class by the May 1st deposit date than to work for one that has to attract deposits after that date.

* The larger the share of the class that enters through Early Decision, the smaller the share that are likely to need financial aid. While admissions professionals will encourage families to use the New Price Calculator on the Financial Aid Web pages, they also caution them to examine family budgets and resources. Unless the college has specified information on GPAs or test scores for scholarships in print or online to all prospective students, it is not obligated to make such awards to students who are accepted through Early Decision. In fact, it is not obligated to meet a family’s full financial need as determined through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The school may use the College Board’s CSS-Profile to collect more information, ask for tax returns, and make their own calculations of need. A college may report that they meet 100 percent of demonstrated need—but it is likely to be based on their own estimates, not the Expected Family Contribution that appears on the FAFSA.

But now the US Department of Justice is investigating the Statement of Good Principles and Practices adopted by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), a membership organization that includes college admissions counselors, school counselor and independent advisors, like myself. No one knows how the investigation could turn up or how it could turn out to change admissions practices. However, as college bound juniors begin to make their college lists, it is possible that it could change the admissions processes at many schools.

Could it impact Early Decision?

It’s very tough to say. Early Decision favors those who can afford the school as well as those who are assured, like full-scholarship athletes. It works against those who do not understand financial aid as well as those families who know that they will struggle to cover college costs. Early Decision has made the college admissions process less “democratic” at many schools, including some of the most selective colleges in the United States.

I am not sure how the current leadership in the White House or Congress would weigh in on Early Decision. There does not appear to be support for increased Federal financial aid. Most colleges, even the more selective schools, will try to use Federal or State grants to help reduce costs for their students before they go to their own endowments to offer need-based aid. They would likely become more selective if they had to rely more heavily on their own funds to help new students.

According to their proposed education budget for 2018, the Trump Administration proposed that:

* Pell Grants become year-round, while they also proposed that total funding be reduced by $500 million.

* Supplemental grants be zeroed out (from over $700 million)

* That the Federal Work Study program, which provides funding for campus jobs, be cut by nearly 50 percent from just under $1 billion to $500 million.

These are hardly the ideas for making college more affordable and accessible to students who want to attend private colleges that offer Early Decision, but also need significant financial aid. Making matters worse, the most recent tax bill passed by Congress and signed by the president taxes endowments of 61 colleges, including some of the most selective.

The private schools (Harvard, Princeton, Stanford and Yale) that prefer to use an alternative, Restricted Early Action, that limits applicants to only one Early Action school, might even shift to Early Decision. It makes it more likely that the students they admit early will have the resources to come. They have to make up for the tax, and possibly a downward path in the market value of their endowment.

State schools that offer Early Decision could face a different story, if governors face pressure to make admissions and enrollment at those schools more accessible to resident students. The response to such pressure might include lower tuition and fee increases or more state funds for financial aid.  Another option, currently practiced in California, North Carolina and Virginia, is to have more “honors” or articulation agreements with community colleges.

But most other colleges that offer Early Decision admissions would likely want to see them continue in this climate. They would want more assurances of enrollment as well as more students who have the resources to enroll. Early Decision is less democratic. But it is also a financial lifeline for many schools.

Need help in understanding college admissions practices? Contact Stuart at or call him at 609-406-0062.

* As founder of Educated Quest, Stuart Nachbar provides personalized college, transfer and graduate/professional school admissions advisory services to help students and parents make the best-informed decisions their future education. Having worked around higher education for over three decades as an admissions advisor, author, urban economic development professional and senior-level software marketing executive, he knows the “inside baseball” about how colleges do business. Stuart holds a BA and MBA from Rutgers University, a Master of Urban Planning for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a Certificate in College Admissions Counseling (with Distinction) from UCLA. He and his wife, Carol, live in Central New Jersey.