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Growing Interest in Early Decision for Both Students and Colleges

High school seniors increasingly want to know where they are going to college earlier, rather than later.

In the past 15 years, admitting students through early action or early decision was "very important" to students choosing a college—jumping from 6.9 percent to 15.7 percent. This trend shows up in the latest annual American Freshman Survey, which compared results for student surveys administered in 1999 and 2014 by the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute.

With early decision, students who are accepted commit to attending their first-choice college typically in December or January. With early action, students can apply to more than one school and the move is not binding. While offers of acceptance are extended early, students have until May to decide where to attend. There are also single-choice early-action plans, where students apply early to only one college but can also submit applications regular decision to others.

Applying early indicates students' strong interest in a particular school, which can give them an admissions edge and help colleges better manage enrollment. However, research cited in the UCLA report indicates the practice tends to advantage affluent families because students commit without the option of comparing financial aid packages, raising equity issues.

Now more than 460 colleges offer some form of early decision and the number is growing. A story in today's Los Angeles Times chronicles the trend of high school seniors locking in early, as well as some pitfalls of the practice.

Some schools, such as the University of Southern California, are not participating in these early programs. Officials say they don't want students to rush their decision and acknowledge concerns that early admission can favor students of means who are savvy about the application process, the Times reports.

The College Board on its Big Future website offers guidance on whether applying early is the best choice, noting that students may want to think twice if they need to compare financial aid offers or want to show colleges their work from senior year.

More college admissions officers are reporting students applying early action, while early-decision applications are leveling off after a surge in recent years, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling. These policies are most common at selective colleges and universities.

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