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Popularity of Early Decision Up, But Not Its Edge

To apply early or not. It's a struggle for many high school students weighing their college options this time of year.

New data from the National Association for College Admission Counseling show students are increasingly applying early, but the edge it gives them in the admissions process is fading.

With Early Decision (ED) students are making a binding commitment to their first-choice school if admitted. They may apply to other schools, but can only have one ED application pending at any time.

The use of ED has been relatively constant with about 22 percent of admissions officers at private schools and 11 percent of those at public schools using it last year, according to the 2012 State of College Admissions report from NACAC released in full today.

But 55 percent of the colleges reported an increase in such applications submitted last fall over 2010, representing the largest increase in five years. Also, 39 percent of institutions say they admitted more students through early decision. Yet another 23 percent had a decrease in ED applications, and 26 percent reported a decrease in ED admits.

So, although a majority of institutions had an increase in ED applications, far fewer reported actually accepting more ED students, NACAC finds.

Despite all the buzz, schools that use ED report that only 9 percent of their total applications for admission were received through Early Decision. Still, it gives students a slight advantage. There is a higher acceptance rate for those who are willing to commit early—59 compared with 53 percent, NACAC's latest research shows.

But the ED gamble used to give students much better odds. From 2007-2009, ED schools reported acceptance-rate advantages of 12 percent to 15 percent for such applicants compared with the current 6 percent advantage.

The trends are slightly different with Early Action (EA), where students apply ahead of regular deadlines but are not restricted and can wait until May 1 to confirm enrollment.

About 31 percent of colleges used EA in 2011, up from 18 percent in 2002. But the growth is slowing. Just 62 percent of colleges report an increase in EA applications last year from 2010, down from 72 percent if colleges between 2009 and 2010, NACAC says.

So what kind of advantage does EA give applicants? Slight. They got in at a 65 percent rate, versus 63 percent for the total applicant pool. As with ED, the edge for EA applicants used to be somewhat greater in 2006 and 2007.

Students eager to find out early where they are going and get the process behind them will likely continue to apply early, even if it doesn't increase their odds for getting into college by that much. But it's helpful to know just how much of an edge it means when making such a big decision.

And, with an ever-expanding applicant pool, admission officers want to use all the enrollment management tools in their arsenal to improve yield rates (the percent of students offered admission who end up attending an institution).

NACAC reports yield rates at four-year colleges at 38 percent in 2011, down from 49 percent a decade ago.

The ease of applying online has helped fuel the growing number of applications, which affects yield rates. Nearly 85 percent of application received by colleges last year were online compared with 57 percent in 2012, the new report says.


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