The latest annual study from the National Association for College Admission Counseling, The State of College Admission 2010, provides some clues.
The number of graduating high school students peaked at 3.3 million in 2009 while at the same time the recession made it more difficult for families to afford colleges.
Higher-ed observers had predicted that students would limit their college choices and, sure enough, a significant minority of colleges have experienced that retrenchment. Twenty nine percent of colleges and universities said they experienced a drop in applications in 2009. That is the largest number of colleges to report fewer applications than at any time since 1996.
The Early Decision AdvantageIn reaction to these realities, highly selective colleges and universities have been accepting more students through early decision applications. Early decision admissions are controversial because it locks students into attending the colleges where they applied early.
Early decision admissions favor wealthy teenagers because they can apply without worrying if their No. 1 school will give them financial aid. Financial aid is not an issue for students whose parents might not flinch at writing checks totaling $225,000 or more for a four-year degree. In contrast, most families will want to obtain competing financial aid offers before committing to a school.
Selective colleges are relying more heavily on early decision applications. In 2009, 65% of colleges that have early-decision policies increased the numbers of students they accepted through the early bird route. Early decision can help a school's financial bottom line by allowing it to fill its class at the beginning of the college admission season by selecting students who have promised to attend.
Students who do apply early decision enjoy a competitive advantage. During the 2009 admission cycle, according to NACAC, 70% of students who applied early decision received acceptances versus 55% of all applicants.