Early Decision: Admission for the rich

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Sophia Keang

College flags and banners hang on the wall of the guidance department.

Sophia Keang, Editor-in-Chief

In November, thousands of hardworking students across the country will submit their Early Decision or Early Action applications for spots at the nation’s most prestigious colleges and universities. These early admission processes provide a way for institutions to identify the most passionate applicants and offer them a greater chance of admission to their dream school. These systems are often presented as a win-win for both schools and students. Unfortunately, the reality is that these early admissions processes, especially Early Decision, intensify the socio-economic inequities in the U.S. Education System.

In junior year, students begin scheduling campus tours and information sessions to get a better understanding of a school’s values. Most of the time, schools market their institution by highlighting two major factors—academics and student life. While these aspects of the college experience remain highly important to a prospective student, there is, however, one part that is often not talked about enough in the college admissions process—a family’s financial situation. 

The Early Decision admissions cycle allows for students to apply earlier to the university, typically in November of their senior year of high school. This process provides students with an earlier decision where they will receive an acceptance, deferral, or rejection in December. However, the nature of this contract legally binds students to the school if admitted. Thus, only students who can commit to a university before viewing their financial aid offer can take advantage of the policy. It is also worth noting that many students cannot apply using such approaches, especially when the average student is predicted to leave undergraduate school with around $30,000 in student debt.

Many students realize that the Early Decision or Early Action applicant pool is more likely going to be smaller, meaning less competition. Thus, these processes allure students into thinking that their chances of being admitted is higher, as this commitment also shows the students who are already devoted to the school. 

For example, Ivy League institutions typically admit between five and eleven percent of students who apply during regular decision but admit 14 to 23 percent of those who apply Early Decision. According to US News, other institutions such as Providence College, American University, and Trinity University have early acceptance rates that are 50 to 70 percentage points higher than the regular acceptance rate.

These statistics can oftentimes be misleading as student-athletes are typically admitted through Early Decision or Early Action cycles, making the early acceptance rates to these schools lower than one may believe.

Throughout high school, students coming from affluent families are more likely to be rewarded through the college admissions process. Even before the fall semester of their senior year, these students benefit from private SAT and ACT tutoring, accessibility to advanced placement (AP) courses, sports, extracurricular opportunities, and even private college counselors. This allows for students from a wealthy background to have an advantage in getting admitted to top schools during these early admissions rounds. 

As a senior currently going through the college admissions process, I know that when the time comes, it will be difficult seeing students commit to their dream schools when I will have yet to receive an acceptance that has offered me sufficient financial support. 

The culture revolving around college admissions has become seemingly toxic as the years continue. Students become sleep deprived studying until 3 a.m. for a test they believe will determine their entire grade for the semester. Not to mention the competitive academic nature of WA students takes a toll on everyone involved—students, teachers, guidance counselors, and families.

However, it doesn’t become known until students begin the admissions process that applying to schools costs so much. An average, non-refundable application fee is around $50 while many prestigious institutions charge applicants $75-$85 just to apply. To add on to that, many students would opt to submit standardized testing scores which include an $18 fee per test date per report for the ACT, a $12 fee per test for the SAT, and a $15 fee in order to submit an AP test score. For example, if a student is applying to ten schools with an application fee of $50 each, three AP test scores, and two SAT scores, it would cost them around $665 already—which is excluding the cost for a private college counselor and other resources wealthy students can afford. 

Furthermore, popular institutions among Westford Academy students such as Cornell University, Tufts University, Boston College, Northeastern University, and many more schools typically cost nearly $80,000 per year to attend including tuition, room and board, and other fees.

According to the most recent Census data in 2020, the median income of a Westford household is approximately $149,437 which is over twice the national median income of $70,784. This means that families will be spending nearly half of their income on their student’s tuition per year, assuming there is only one student attending university. Not to mention, top private schools don’t typically offer many opportunities for merit scholarships to those who aren’t top of their class and part of the middle class—and not every student can be valedictorian. 

While FAFSA, Free Application for Federal Student Aid, does offer support for students, there are many grey areas when it comes to middle-class students. A low-income student earning a full ride to an Ivy League will definitely be beneficial, but what does that mean when many Westford families will have to dedicate over half of their income to one child? Even though FAFSA takes into account the number of people in college for a family’s contribution, it is difficult when your child is the first to go to school amongst their siblings, and within the next few years, the second child will need to pay for school.

Students coming from these wealthy backgrounds often don’t realize their privilege, and as someone who has had the privilege of attending Westford Academy, a high school known to send its students to a four-year college, I realize that. I am not trying to convince people not to go to a top school because people can do whatever they please with their own money, but all I warn you about are the financial consequences of choosing to apply through early binding programs at prestigious schools simply because the acceptance rate is “higher”.