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This is the Hardest College in America to Get Into? Hint: It Isn’t Harvard.

In the admissions process, the early decision brings an advantage for applicants: a decision by Christmas. For colleges, early decision means locking in a significant portion of their freshman class—while charging full tuition—before even getting to regular decision applicants.

At some colleges, early decision could even make up a majority of the freshman class. James S. Murphy, of Business Insider, recently explained how colleges take advantage of ‘early decision’ and why the process is rigged.

“At many colleges and universities, the acceptance rate for early decision is more than double that of regular decision,” Murphy says. “At Dartmouth and Columbia it’s more than triple, and at Brown and Duke it’s more than quadruple. With odds like that, it’s no surprise that some high-school students decide to apply ED, hoping to cut the line to their dream school. But for many disadvantaged students, early decision is more of a nightmare — one more rigged step in a college-admissions process that is already rigged against them.”


One college that relies heavily on early decision is Tulane University. According to Murphy, of the 14,000 or so applicants who applied to Tulane for regular decision, only 106 got in. That gives Tulane an acceptance rate of 0.7%—making it the hardest college in America to get an acceptance letter.

“The only way Tulane can afford to reject 99% of its applicants in the regular round is if it’s confident it has already locked down most of its class through early decision,” Murphy says. “ED also enables colleges to rope in standout athletes, foreign applicants, and students from wealthy families, all of whom are more likely to apply for early decision than students with fewer resources. For a school like Tulane, ED is Christmas before Christmas.”

When a college like Tulane admits a majority of its freshman class through early decision, it can make it incredibly difficult to gain admission through regular decision.

“Like most colleges that offer early decision, Tulane didn’t advertise that it had almost no spots left in its freshman class to applicants before it accepted their applications,” Murphy says.


It’s important to note that few colleges offer early decision as an option, and most students still apply to college via regular decision.

“Early decision is rare because there are only so many colleges able to attract enough applications, particularly from qualified students who can pay full freight to attend, to make an ED plan worth offering,” Murphy says.

In fact, only 9% of four-year colleges offered early decision in 2020, and only 3% of freshmen were admitted through early decision. But, Murphy says, that number is rising.

“The number is rising slowly, but what’s worrisome isn’t that ED is expanding to more colleges — it’s the way it’s expanding at the highly selective colleges that already offer it,” Murphy says. “In 2017, Tulane admitted 26% of its freshman class ED. By 2020, the share was 50%. This fall, based on data from Tulane, it will hit 60%.”

At Boston College, early decision admits doubled from 2015 to 2020. And at Washington University in St. Louis, the share of early decision admits increased by two-thirds.

On the surface, early decision seems fair. After all, anyone who wants an advantage in admissions can simply apply early. But the reality of early decision, experts say, is that it really only favors wealthy applicants.

“Wealthy students are able to apply through early decision because they can afford the risk of not receiving a substantial financial aid package,” Abril Castro, a research assistant for Race and Ethnicity Policy at the Center for American Progress, says. “Meanwhile, low-income students and students of color are left to compete for the remaining spots. Early decision perpetuates broader patterns of societal and economic inequality. Ending early decision admissions policies can help ensure that more students have equal access to higher education opportunities.”

Sources: Business Insider, Center for American Progress


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