Early Decision Is Down

And early action is flat, according to numbers from Naviance. Black and Latino applicants are less likely to apply early than are Asians and whites. Common App figures point to fears about this year's totals.

February 3, 2020
 
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Anecdotal reports have been circulating among admissions professionals that some -- but not all -- colleges are seeing a decline in early applications.

Until this year, early decision (in which applicants pledge to enroll if admitted) and early action (in which they don't) have become more popular than in the past. College officials like early programs for filling their classes -- and some colleges fill more than half of their classes this way. Of course, some applicants don't like it for the same reason.

Now there are national numbers to amplify the anecdotes. Hobsons, which runs Naviance, has released figures for early decision this year, and the numbers show a sharp decline for early decision and likely a flat year for early action.

First, a word on Naviance. It is a tool for tracking the success of a high school's students in enrolling in different colleges and has been criticized in the past for having too large a share of students from wealthy high schools. But Naviance's growth in recent years has been in large public school districts, and it claims to have half of the largest public school districts and a representative sample of seven million total applications that it tracked in the last year.

Here are the numbers for early decision and early action this year and for the past three years:

Early Applications, 2017-2020

Class Year Early Action Early Decision
2017 770,153 126,463
2018 889,998 138,694
2019 1,107,381 171,103
2020 1,074,346 121,903

The figures for this year are preliminary, and most years, the final figures go up by 5 to 10 percent. But after several years in which early decision and early action have seen major increases, early decision will see a major decline and early action will likely remain flat.

Amy Reitz, general manager of Hobsons' Intersect program, which includes Naviance, said it was hard to know why fewer students are applying early decision. She said that surveys from Naviance indicate that students are still applying to college (in general) at the same rates.

The numbers from Naviance also show that reports that black and Latino applicants are less likely than white and Asian applicants to apply early are true.

Only 10 percent of early applicants this year were black (compared to 15 percent of higher education enrollments). Only 11 percent were Latino (compared to 19 percent of higher ed enrollments).

In contrast, Asians made up 16 percent of early applications and are only 8 percent of total students. And whites made up 60 percent of early applications but 55 percent of students.

While the reasons for these patterns vary, in general black and Latino students are more likely than other students to need aid (and thus want to compare offers from multiple colleges) and are more likely than other students to start the process later, making them ineligible for early applications.

Common App

The Common Application is another source of data for the total application pool.

While many colleges accept applications after Jan. 1, the date is key for others. For the current year, the Common App ran numbers for Jan. 1, comparing them to a year ago, and shared the following:

  • Applications to half of members are up and half are down.
  • Applications to private institutions in all regions are down from last year with the exception of small and midsize private schools in the South.
  • Among public institutions, applications to large institutions (enrollments of 20,000 or more students) in all regions are up.
  • Individual international applicant numbers are relatively flat over all (down less than 1 percent), with notable changes in applicants from the traditionally highest-volume countries.

Countries of Citizenship and Applications, 2020

Particularly notable is that drop in Chinese applicants, before the current fears over the health of students from China.

Country Percent Change
China -14.47%
India +5.71%
Canada +4.70%
Korea -6.66%
Mexico -1.03%

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