Early risingWhen students from the Class of 2018 begin to fill campus next fall, one out of every two will have applied and been admitted through the early decision process. While this is not unprecedented for the University—44 percent of this year’s freshman class applied ED—it is indicative of a trend that has resulted in an almost 20 percent increase in the number of Duke students admitted early over the past decade.
The increase in ED admits has been accompanied by an even more substantial increase in the number of ED applicants, driving down the early acceptance rate to 25 percent and paralleling trends at schools like Northwestern, Cornell and Stanford.
What is driving these changes? For one, it is increasingly difficult to gain admission to elite universities; regular decision admission rates of many top ten universities often stay under 10 percent. Duke also privileges early applicants. According to Duke’s Undergraduate Admissions website, the early admission rate for the Class of 2017 was 20 percent greater than the regular admission rate, giving risk-averse applicants an incentive to hedge their bets by applying early. We can expect the ED applicant pool to keep increasing as long as the admission rate differential remains sufficiently large.
Why does Duke privilege its early applicants? Official University materials explicitly market the high ED acceptance rate, indicating that the University values applicants who strongly desire to attend Duke. Prioritizing early applicants may also help the university in official rankings. Increasing the percentage of students admitted through ED depresses overall acceptance rates and boosts yield, both important factors in determining how Duke ranks against peer institutions. Over time, ascendance in the rankings promises to improve applicant quality.
Regardless of whether or not rising ED admission rates reflect a deliberate strategy, the trend has important consequences. First, the ED applicant pool is racially less diverse than the overall student body. According to Director of Undergraduate Admissions Christoph Guttentag, 37 percent of this year’s ED admits were students of color—12 percentage points lower than the current student body’s percentage of non-white students.
Second, it is likely that, on average, ED applicants are better off financially than regular applicants, although this data is not readily available. Students who apply early do not get to compare financial aid packages across schools, meaning that most thoughtful applicants will apply early only if they are confident in their ability to pay. Moreover, detailed knowledge of the ED process accompanies access to well-trained college counselors, often a privilege of the affluent. Given the potential impact for fairness and diversity, it is important that the University account for both of these issues in its admissions strategy.
Third, applicant quality may also vary between early and regular decision pools. Applicants interested in Duke, but not convinced of their ability to gain admission through the regular decision process, have an incentive to apply early. From this, we can infer that average applicant quality might be slightly lower in the ED pool.
Duke might be willing to weather these effects in order to climb the rankings. But the student body is one of the University’s most valuable assets, and Duke should take pains to ensure its admissions policy prioritizes fairness, diversity and applicant quality.