November 1 is just two weeks away — and that means tens of thousands of students are racing to finish their early-decision applications.
Early decision, we’ve been told in recent years, has become “the new normal.” That’s certainly true for wealthy students who hire private tutors like James Murphy,
a private testing and admissions consultant.
He’s going to help them navigate that system, but it doesn’t mean he likes it.
So is early decision really on the rise?
Yes. In 2012, just over 5 percent of all the students who applied that year to four-year colleges applied early, according to Murphy. Five years later, in 2017, that number climbed to 7.6 percent.
That’s not exactly the new normal.
Not by a long shot. The number of private, non-profit colleges offering early decision rose to 12 percent from just under 10 percent. Most of that new growth, Murphy points out, was among colleges that already enroll high percentages of their applicants.
Then why does it matter?
First, it encourages high-school students and their families to see college admissions as a game to be won. “It forces students to think about applying strategically,” he says. “I’m all for the kid who goes to Elon, falls in love with it, and applies early. Great. Why should that kid, if he can get into Elon, have to go through all the anxiety?”
But once he, as a private tutor, is talking about “strategy” with families, something feels off kilter.
Ultimately, he acknowledges, that’s not the biggest public worry.
“The harm that’s being done to families who feel a need to engage in this kind of game theory is not a big concern,” he says. “That not why a college should choose not to do it. They should choose not to do it because what studies there are out there — and there aren’t enough — indicate that the benefit goes largely to wealthy white students who have private advisors.”
A 2016 Jack Kent Cooke Foundation report
analyzed Common App data for high-achieving students. It found that 29 percent of them from families making more than $250,000 applied early decision. In comparison, just 16 percent from families with incomes less than $50,000 did the same.
Early decision isn’t going anywhere, though.
Early decision provides certainty for colleges in an uncertain admissions process, letting some of them now lock down half of their freshman class months ahead of time.
Instead Murphy suggested that other carrots and sticks need to exist [maybe new federal policy, maybe public shaming] that focus on the real issue: selective colleges that are under-enrolling low- and middle-income students. Murphy would rather see more talk on changes like an endowment tax on wealthy universities that don’t enroll a substantial number of students on Pell Grants.
“Basically,” he says, “we should be addressing the outcomes that early decision contributes to.”