top of page

‘Affirmative action for well-off students’: Why early decision is under fire

Scrutiny over the practice heightened after the Supreme Court struck down race-
conscious admissions in 2023.

By: Lilah Burke • Published Nov. 27, 2023
When choosing how to fill their incoming classes, highly selective colleges have several tools at their
disposal. But many of those admissions practices are facing accusations that they perpetuate unequal
access to higher education.

Advocates for low-income students have called for an end to early decision admissions policies, along
with practices that favor the children of alumni and donors. Early decision requires students to attend
an institution if they are accepted, meaning they must pledge to enroll before seeing their financial aid

“It’s really a form of affirmative action for well-off students,” said Marcella Bombardieri, a senior fellow
at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank. “You have to be comfortable that you’re
going to be able to afford that college.”

Still, few institutions are ending their early decision programs, which enable them to lock down their
incoming class and ensure they don’t lose students to other colleges.

Why early decision is under fire
An analysis of 2021 college applications sent via the Common App found that students from the
wealthiest ZIP codes were twice as likely to apply through early decision than all other applicants,
according to a 2022 report from Education Reform Now, a progressive think tank. The Common App
allows students to submit applications to more than 1,000 member colleges.
And that choice often has an effect on the likelihood of acceptance. At Brown, for example, only 4% of
students who applied by the regular deadline were accepted in 2020, compared to 18% of those who
applied through early decision.

Some colleges fill much of their incoming classes with early decision students. And several have vastly
increased that share over the past few years.
At Bates College, in Maine, officials admitted 60% of the first-year class through early decision in 2015.
In 2020, that share rose to 81%.

Early decision applicants comprised at least half of that year’s first-year class at other selective colleges,
including Columbia University, Dartmouth College, Middlebury College and Wesleyan University,
Education Reform Now found. All of those institutions increased their share from 2015 to 2020.
Early decision policies, however, affect just a small share of prospective college students in the U.S.

bottom of page