Early Decision Update

Higher-Ed Quality & Affordability

December 7, 2023

In 2022, Education Reform Now released the first issue brief in our Future of Fair Admissions series. The brief contained the most comprehensive research on college admissions early decision plans, which provide an applicant an admissions decision in mid-December in exchange for the student’s commitment to enroll if admitted. 

Using the Common Data Set, we identified almost 200 colleges and universities that admitted at least one student through an early decision (ED) plan. Working with the Common Application, we also identified which students are more likely to apply early decision. Students at expensive private high schools are more than three times as likely to apply ED, which is likely due to a combination of college advising, school culture, and financial privilege. Although most colleges and universities will release an applicant from their commitment if they cannot afford to attend, many students may avoid applying ED because they want to compare financial aid offers. That it why, Education Reform Now advocates that any college or university that offers early decision plans should itself commit to meeting the full financial need of all admitted applicants.

The same factors that make students at expensive private schools much more likely to apply ED may drive the greater propensity of international students and students from the richest zip codes to apply early decision.

Here are the updated findings for the freshman class that started in fall 2022, drawn from Common Data Set reporting. 

  1. In 2016, 181 colleges and universities admitted at least one student through early decision. In 2020, 194 did. In 2022, 200 did. 
  1. Out of 2,050 colleges and universities that reported admissions data to the Common Data Set for 2022, just 10% admitted students through ED.
  1. Out of 1,803,565 reported freshmen enrollments in the Common Data Set for 2022, approximately 3.5% were enrolled through ED. (Note that many open enrollment institutions do not report enrollment data.)
  1. In 2022, 608 colleges and universities offered Early Decision and/or Early Action. 162 offered both. 313 offered EA without ED. 133 offered ED without EA.
  2. Not all colleges that offer ED and/or EA receive applications through those programs. In 2022, 314 colleges and universities received at least one ED application and/or one EA application. 75 received at least one for both ED and EA. 131 received at least one for ED but none for EA. 108 received at least one for EA but none for ED.
  3. In 2020, there were 82 institutions where the share of students admitted through ED was a third or more of the total students enrolled in the freshman class. In 2022, there were 84. Some institutions failed to report ED data for both years on their CDS survey. 
  1. Among those institutions that enrolled a third or more of their freshman class in 2022 through early decision and for which we have 2016 data, 55 had increased their ED share since 2016, 4 remained the same, and 17 decreased their share.
  1. Among those institutions that enrolled a third or more of their freshman class in 2022 through early decision and for which we have 2020 data, 27 had increased their ED share since 2020, 9 remained the same, and 43 decreased their share.

Taken together, these findings suggest that while early decision has expanded in terms of the numbers of institutions offering it and the share of freshmen admitted ED, the growth has not been especially rapid on either front. 

The slow growth of ED programs among institutions is likely the result of the vast majority of colleges being very accessible. Applying early decision is sometimes portrayed as little more than a consumer convenience, but the reality is that many of the students who apply ED do so strategically. They want to increase their chances of getting into a highly selective college. If a college admits more applicants than it rejects, there is little value in applying there through early decision. It is unlikely that we will see a significant increase in the number of institutions offering ED in the coming years.

There may, however, be greater cause for concern over increases in the share of students institutions enroll through Early Decision. For example, in 2017, the first year Tulane University enrolled students through ED, 26% of the class was brought in that way. Five years later, that share grew to 68%, the third highest in the nation. It would be one thing if Tulane was using using ED to prioritize enrollment of underrepresented students, but it has one of the worst records in the nation for enrolling applicants from low-income households. On the other hand, Washington University has significantly improved its enrollment of students with Pell Grants at the same time that it has leaned heavily into Early Decision.

Early decision need not be a force for privilege; it can be used to serve access and social mobility. The problem is that there is no way for us to know how any institutions or institutions in aggregate are using early decision. The Common Data Set collects no information on who applies, gets admitted, or enrolls through ED. 

The U.S. Department of Education should begin collecting admissions data for early decision and early action and disaggregate it at every point by race and ethnicity and at the point of enrollment by Pell-eligibility (that data point is not readily available for all applicants and admits).