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What happened with early admissions this year?

by Carol Barash, PhD, on Dec 23, 2020 8:28:12 PM

Five years ago, I wrote an article for Inside Higher Ed on how college admissions could be fixed. In the face of a deeply flawed system that is clearly designed to perpetuate and protect existing wealth and power structures, I proposed a two-step solution: first, establish a simple and consistent admissions threshold that will treat all students equally, and second, invest in understanding the fit between colleges and students to prioritize the needs of all students. 

I concluded the article by noting that “it will take significant collective will to achieve something equitable and empowering for students of all backgrounds.” At the time, I knew the battle would be uphill, but I was hopeful. 

Five years later, very little has changed. In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic has made the state of college admissions even worse — gaps that existed have been widened, and new ones have been created. The dust hasn’t fully settled on the 2020-2021 admissions cycle, but this much is already clear from the results of early admissions. 

In the 2015 article, I included the abolishment of early admissions as a necessary step for creating a more equitable system. I included this because early admissions overwhelmingly favors wealthy students — only the most privileged can afford to commit to a college without first receiving their financial aid package — and makes an already-uneven playing field all the more skewed. 

There has been a years-long trend of more and more privileged students using early action (EA) and early decision (ED) programs to secure better admissions and scholarships outcomes. In the current cycle, this disparity is more apparent than ever. Early admissions cycles were much more competitive this year, and as many as 85% of prospective college students applied EA, ED, or both.  

There are likely a few reasons for this. First, uncertainty due to COVID may have made early admissions more appealing. Second, because so many colleges did not require standardized testing this year, students also may have aimed higher and, thinking their chances were better, took risks that they otherwise would not have taken. 

But in reality, the removal of the standardized testing requirement did not change anything. Colleges are still prioritizing their bottom lines, as they have always done. Just like wealthy students, colleges use early admissions strategically — early admissions improves colleges’ numbers and reduces their financial aid liability. They are admitting more and more students via ED to “lock them in,” and are offering “merit” scholarships to woo EA applicants. This means that students who can pay all or part of their tuition are being selected over those who have more significant financial need.

These patterns are not new, and if we allow it, they will only continue to worsen outcomes for lower-income students.

But I’m still hopeful, even now. There are things we can do to reverse this trend. This year, more students applied early than ever, and there was a very significant increase in the number of first-generation students applying — and being admitted with scholarships. This means that college access counselors and organizations made a huge impact this year, and we must continue to invest in them. 

If you were deferred or rejected during the early admissions cycle, here’s what I want you to know: this is not a reflection on you; it’s a reflection on an already-failing system that has been worsened by COVID. Yes, the system is rigged, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t get into a great college with a significant scholarship. There are many great colleges that still have space and financial aid for the class of 2025. Believe in yourself, and in your stories. 

And if you have questions, I’m holding open office hours on Tuesday, January 12th at 5pm PT / 8pm ET: "What to do next if you were deferred or rejected early." If you have specific questions you'd like to discuss, please submit them in advance to

Happy holidays, and much joy and light for you and those you love in 2021! 

A graduate of Yale, UVA, Princeton, Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses, Techstars, and Founder Gym, Carol Barash founded Story2 in 2014 to teach high school and college students around the world how to unlock the power of storytelling to live their biggest, boldest lives.