Following Affirmative Action Ban, Can Early Decision Survive?

Several elite colleges have abandoned legacy preferences, but most have remained mum on early decision programs that provide similar benefits to those who need them least.
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Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D., is a senior writer and higher education analyst with BestColleges. He has 30 years of experience in higher education as a university administrator and faculty member and teaches writing at Johns Hopkins University. A former...
Published on September 26, 2023
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  • Brown University is rethinking its admissions policies, including early decision.
  • With affirmative action banned, selective colleges may struggle to enroll a diverse student body.
  • Early decision programs favor wealthy, white students and counteract diversity efforts.
  • Public pressure might cause universities to abandon early decision and similar policies.

In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's ban on affirmative action, Brown University is rethinking its admissions policies. Like many other colleges, Brown has embarked on a soul-searching expedition, questioning the wisdom of standardized tests and legacy preferences now that admissions decisions must remain race-neutral and campus diversity becomes a more elusive goal.

In Brown's case, early decision is on the table as well. Early decision programs aren't common across higher education, but they exist at many of the schools most impacted by the court's ruling.

As these institutions weigh the benefits of early decision against the challenges of enrolling a diverse student body, they have to ask themselves: Does clinging to a policy that stunts diversity efforts still make sense?

Early Admissions Grows More Popular

Since June's Supreme Court decision banning race-conscious admissions, elite universities and external critics alike have questioned practices that disadvantage underserved students, including legacy and donor preferences, along with athletic recruitment.

Early decision programs, which offer affluent students the same benefits, have attracted less attention.

To be fair, these practices have been scrutinized for years. Two decades ago, the insidious effects of early decision were laid bare.

But thanks to the SCOTUS ruling, the game has changed and the stakes have risen. The zero-sum calculus of competitive admissions means that every seat taken by someone who gained an advantage results in one less spot available for those who didn't.

Legacy admissions certainly has come under fire as a result. Numerous states have banned the practice, and some have tried to extend that prohibition to private colleges as well. Several prominent schools, including Amherst, Johns Hopkins, and Wesleyan, have stopped favoring legacies.

The notion of an admissions boost predicated on a birthright, something inherited and not earned, just doesn't sit well with a growing number of legislators and college administrators.

Early decision applicants don't take advantage of a birthright but rather of a system tilted in their favor. Yes, anyone can apply early and improve their chances of gaining admission.

At least that's what the numbers suggest. Dartmouth College, for instance, accepted 21.2% of early applicants to the class of 2025, while its regular decision acceptance rate was 6.17%.

Students applying early to Brown and Duke increase their odds fourfold, and early applicants at Columbia are three times more likely to get in.

Granted, what many applicants don't know is that legacies and recruited athletes constitute a fair number of early admits, so those percentages offer a dollop of false hope for everyone else. Still, applying early does offer a statistical advantage.

Colleges realize benefits as well, especially with binding early decision programs (as opposed to early action programs, which are not binding). Admitting a considerable percentage of students who have agreed to attend if accepted boosts a college's yield, a marketable measure of desirability.

Take the University of Pennsylvania, for example. Among the entering class of 2026, more than half (51%) were admitted early. It's no wonder Penn's yield rate has reached 73%, well above the national average of 25% for private colleges.

What's more, by admitting a significant percentage of the class early, a college can gain a clearer sense of the demographics of its entering class and cherry-pick applicants in the larger pool who round out the class in various ways.

Affirmative Action for the Rich

So if students and colleges both benefit from early decision, then what's the downside? It counteracts efforts to enroll more low-income and underrepresented students, favoring wealthy and white applicants.

Across highly selective schools, early decision applicant pools are three times as white as pools for regular decision. A comparison of regular and early decision pools from fall 2021 shows that the share of Black applicants applying early decreased by almost half. Colleges employing early decision programs are simply less diverse.

And the applicant pools are far more affluent. Students from the wealthiest ZIP codes are twice as likely to apply early as other applicants. Education Reform Now found that students attending private schools were 3.5 times more likely to apply early than public school students.

At Dartmouth, students from families earning more than $250,000 annually are twice as likely to apply early as students from families making less than $50,000.

Why do applicant pools skew wealthy? For one, students in less-affluent communities often attend schools lacking adequate counseling resources to help them navigate the admissions process. First-generation college students cannot rely on family members for guidance and may not know early options exist. And if they do, they might find the process rather confusing given the subtle distinctions between early decision I and II, early action, restrictive early action, and regular decision.

As the Education Reform Now report put it, applying early is a "product of not only financial capital but also cultural capital, or know-how."

Yet the more significant factor hampering low-income students is the inability to compare financial aid awards, particularly under early decision programs. Unlike early action or "restrictive" early action programs — offered by Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford — early decision programs are binding, meaning students must apply to only one school and commit to accepting an admission offer. Numerous elite colleges — including all the other Ivies — use early decision.

Granted, early decision agreements aren't legally binding, and students can decline offers if the aid offered is insufficient. But applying under early decision means a student can't apply early elsewhere and compare aid packages if admitted.

Many early action programs allow students to apply early to other schools, though an American Progress analysis concludes that while early action programs are "less inequitable" than early decision programs, they share "the same fundamental flaw" because they reward students "who have received the supports to determine their college choice sooner and complete an application months earlier than they would otherwise need to."

For students seeking to make college decisions based on financial aid, then, early decision is a poor choice. Families less concerned about financial aid, on the other hand, might encourage their children to apply early to gain an edge.

Much like legacy admissions programs, early decision conflicts with the elite university rhetoric around diversity, access, and equity. Now that the Supreme Court has made enrolling a diverse student body significantly more difficult, how long will colleges continue to promote policies exacerbating the problem?

The Future of Early Admissions Programs

Early decision isn't a higher education problem. It's an elite college admissions problem.

Only about 1 in 8 colleges offers early decision, and in 2020, a mere 3.5% of college students were accepted through such a program.

But early decision exists at many of the schools most impacted by the court's decision to ban affirmative action, where admissions teams employ "holistic" assessments while sifting through 30 or more applications for every spot in the entering class. A ticket into one of these colleges increases a student's chances of "achieving upper-tail success on both monetary and non-monetary dimensions," says a recent report by Opportunity Insights.

And it's these schools, the ones with the lowest acceptance rates, that are most likely to consider race and ethnicity in their admissions decisions, a Pew Research Center study found.

Now that they no longer can, early decision becomes problematic. So what happens next?

Thus far, colleges offering early decision haven't denounced the practice, although Brown's internal investigations might conclude as much. Could the university adopt a more forgiving early action policy and, in doing so, persuade other early decision schools to follow suit?

Perhaps these colleges should instead follow Wake Forest University's lead and institute an early action program for first-generation students as a way to encourage low-income and underrepresented students to apply.

In any event, would eliminating early admissions programs across elite colleges help achieve diversity goals?

Maybe not, says Christopher Norio Avery, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School and author of "The Early Admissions Game: Joining the Elite."

"Let's imagine someone waving a magic wand and some regulator says no one can have early decision. Superficially, early decision advantages certain people," Avery told The Chronicle of Higher Education. "But there are a lot of schools who have regular conversations with a college and know how to communicate with an admissions office.

"Getting rid of early decision, no matter how superficially good it seems, can give well-connected students even more advantage," he said, and eliminating the practice could "create an informal process that wouldn't be available to everyone."

Perhaps that's true, but it's unlikely to persuade a public skeptical of any policies that prima facie benefit already advantaged students. Growing pressure from faculty, students, and legislators might force universities to abandon the practice and forfeit the institutional gains they derive from it, especially now that elite college admissions is under a microscope.

"Concerns about the use of various preferences in admissions have been growing over time but have become amplified in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision striking down race-conscious admissions," Brown President Christina H. Paxson wrote in her letter to the university community. "There is intense interest among policymakers, the public at large, and our own students and alumni in ensuring that admissions practices are as fair and equitable as possible."