On Sunday, a new round of high school hopefuls for Penn’s Class of 2020 submitted their applications to the University through the Early Decision Program. This year, the number of ED applications is higher than ever, with 5,629 high school seniors applying.
But while the Penn community has largely focused on how the number of applicants has been increasing year over year, its members have generally ignored another increase: the growing percentage of students admitted through Early Decision.
Right now on campus, there are more Penn undergrads who were admitted through Early Decision than Regular Decision. That’s because for the past two admissions cycles, Penn has admitted a majority of its class through ED. The two years before that, the University admitted almost half of its class through ED as well.
The early college admissions process can be a valuable one for both prospective students and the colleges to which they apply, but at Penn, the Admissions Office has started overly relying on the Early Decision pool to admit students.
When the majority of students are admitted via ED, Early Decision becomes the new Regular Decision. And while ED ensures that students enrolling at Penn really do love the University and want to come here, it can be detrimental for students coming from lower-income backgrounds while giving preference to high school students who already have more opportunities than other applicants.
The ED process requires high schoolers to apply by Nov. 1 of their senior year, which means they must have already begun thinking about their college application, personal essays and standardized tests during junior year or earlier. While thinking about college extremely early is normal for many students who go on to attend Penn and other elite institutions, the unfortunate truth is that this early process excludes those who are first-generation Americans, who come from poverty-stricken public schools or who are the first in their family to attend college. Without the support of knowledgeable high school counselors, family members or high-achieving friends, such students might not have even heard of Early Decision or have the tools to begin thinking about college applications. And for those who have heard of it, the fact that a student gets locked into one particular college if they’re admitted means they have to trust that their chosen college will provide them with enough financial aid, which creates a deep power imbalance.
At the same time, Early Decision favors students who are legacies. The Admissions Office website acknowledges that “children and grandchildren of alumni will receive the most consideration” for acceptance under ED. In general, over 40 percent of legacy students who apply early decision are accepted.
But the power imbalance that’s created by the ED process affects all students, not just those from underprivileged backgrounds. As an article in The Atlantic argues, ED is an “arranged marriage” that benefits the institution much more than the student. By locking down the majority of its class early, Penn arguably gets to ration its financial aid as well as potentially lower its admittance rate, which affects college rankings. In turn, students get to stop worrying earlier about which college they got into. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing when done in moderation. But the reason regular decision is called “regular” is because students, on the whole, should be able to weigh their options equally and fairly at the end of their high school education. After all, getting a college education is tantamount to purchasing a service, no matter how elite the institution. Students are the consumers, and they should have the power to to make colleges compete to provide the best financial — and educational — package.
By filling the majority of the class through Early Decision, Penn is making increasing its rankings a priority over allowing students to fairly compare colleges to which they have been accepted. Of course, for those who truly know that Penn is their top choice college and have the means to apply early, ED is a wonderful process. And ED does help colleges understand a potential student’s “fit” as well as create a strong school spirit on campus. But on the institutional end, Penn should consider exactly what message it is sending about its values and responsibilities as a leader in higher education when it admits more than half of a class through Early Decision.