Watching groups of students and their parents tour Dartmouth, it’s hard not to reminisce about one’s own college admissions experience — an experience perhaps filled with disappointment and reflection or, for many students who were accepted via early decision, a sense of relief marking the end of an often agonizing journey. However, while the process of early decision is appealing, it often is only accessible for those with the wealth and intergenerational knowledge to utilize it. Students whose parents make more than $250,000 per year are twice as likely to apply early than students whose family makes less than $50,000. The early decision process exacerbates inequalities, and at Dartmouth, where 69% of students come from the top 20%, we need to ban it.
When applying to college, students have the option to apply early through three different plans that are offered: early action, which is offered at most schools and is non-binding; restrictive early action, an option offered by many Ivy League schools — including Yale and Harvard Universities — that only allows one to apply to a single school early but is non-binding; and early decision — the most restrictive of the three options, a binding decision and the one which Dartmouth uses. Students are incentivized to use these options, as applying early opens the door to an increased likelihood of being accepted at top tier colleges.
Last admissions cycle, 566 applicants were admitted to Dartmouth through the early decision round, making up about half of the Class of 2025. Early applicants to Dartmouth saw an acceptance rate of 21.2%, a percentage nearly four times the regular decision acceptance rate of 6.17%. Even when accounting for inflation in the early decision acceptance rate caused by student-athletes who have already committed, this discrepancy is still significant.
With that said, one of the most important factors — and, often, the determining factor — in where low-income students go to college is financial aid. While ED is appealing for many students, as it gives them a better chance at getting into selective colleges and allows them to expedite the college application process, it favors students with wealth and resources, disadvantaging students who lack the financial security to commit to a school before reviewing their financial aid package. Because early decision requires admitted students to commit to a school without knowing how much they will be expected to contribute, it is prohibitive for many low income students, who are also predominantly minority and first generation students.
Proponents of early decision often cite the option to withdraw for financial reasons as a way to deny the inequalities that exist in the process. Indeed, Dartmouth says on its admissions website that it “routinely” releases students who cannot attend for financial reasons from their early decision agreements. While students who show proof that they are unable to pay their expected contribution can indeed remove themselves from an early decision binding contract, students are still unable to apply early to other schools and compare the aid they would’ve received from these other schools. Even with the appeals process, there is no guarantee that their appeal will be approved, a possibility that could deter many applicants.
On top of this, for low-income, first-generation high school seniors who are already struggling with the college application process, the appeals process adds unnecessary stress and complications that could be alleviated by simply changing early decision to early action or restrictive early action. Colleges often use early decision as a way to distinguish students who are truly committed to the school. Early action, restrictive and nonrestrictive, both achieve this same goal while being more inclusive.
For students with sufficient means and financial security, ED can also prove problematic, as it places an immense burden on high school seniors to commit to a school they may not be entirely confident in. Early decision eliminates the opportunity to assess and compare other options and choose the best one. Recently, the National Association for College Admission Counseling moved in the other direction, voting to get rid of a ban on using incentives to convince students to apply early. This allows colleges to dangle incentives such as getting a first pick for classes and better dorms to convince students to apply, allowing yet more advantages to accrue to students who are able to apply early — in other words, the disproportionately white and wealthy.
Despite the inequality binding applications foster, many elite schools continue to offer them as a means of increasing their yield — the proportion of accepted students who choose to enroll — which in turn improves a school’s rankings, a tradeoff that seems completely out of line with many of Dartmouth’s core values.
From standardized testing to financial aid, the college admissions process is littered with inequalities. If Dartmouth and other colleges are truly committed to creating the “inclusive and vibrant learning environment” Dartmouth touts on its home page, it needs to show it. As the current admission cycle comes to an end, I hope Dartmouth will make a conscious effort now and in the future to admit a diverse class that accurately reflects the world we live in. The first step is abolishing early decision.