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Feb. 26, 2021, 4:21 p.m. EST

COVID-19 is changing college application strategies — and lowering the odds of getting into top schools

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By Howard Gold

COVID-19 has been a catalyst for many changes in higher education—quicker uptake of online education, a dropping of test requirements, deep discounts on tuition and fees. But now there may be another one: Early admissions applications have been off the charts.

College matriculation is off big, especially for low-income students . But more selective schools, including leading state universities, are seeing a record surge in applications for early admissions, which can be a source for 25% to 50% of freshman classes. That also means a big drop in acceptance rate for these programs, which savvy students and parents often viewed as an easier path for kids to get into the school of their dreams.

But the early action round for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology got more than 15,000 applicants (the school got 20,000 total applicants for the freshman class that entered last fall). That marked a 62% increase over the previous year’s early application totals. MIT’s Cambridge rival, Harvard, notched 10,000 early applications, a 57% jump (it got a mind-boggling 57,000-plus total applications this year).

Yale reported a 38% surge in early applications, and Dartmouth and Rice saw a 29% rise over the previous year. The University of Virginia also had a 38% application increase in its relatively new early decision track, while the University of Georgia got more than 20,000 applications for its early action round, a 27% jump. Other colleges and universities showed substantial increases in the numbers of applicants who applied early.

The huge surge in early applications is great for the colleges, of course, but there’s a big downside for the applicants and their families: The acceptance rate for these programs is dropping, sometimes by a lot.

In 2019 Brown admitted 22% of its early applicants; that dropped to 16% in December 2020. Duke’s early acceptance rate declined from 21% to 17% while Penn’s fell from almost 20% to 15%. Harvard’s early acceptance rate was cut in half, from almost 14% to 7%, while MIT’s slid from 7.4% in 2019 to 4.8% in December. That was even below its 6.7% overall acceptance rate of the year before.

And several people connected with college admissions have confirmed to me that instead of being “deferred” for scrutiny in the regular admissions pool, more early applicants are facing outright rejection this year.

Early acceptance rates often run twice as high as the general acceptance rates at highly selective colleges. These schools, which have high-single- to low-double-digit acceptance rates in the general admissions pool, would often admit 20% or more of their early applicants.

This is just good business for universities: Lock in as many of your customers early, especially those who can pay full freight, so you have more leverage to fill out your classes with financial aid bargain hunters and others who have to compete on good old-fashioned merit.

Not that early appliers aren’t meritorious; some are spectacularly so. But traditionally early admissions was where recruited athletes signed on the dotted line and legacies—kids of alumni and big donors—had the red carpet rolled out for them and their rich parents.

Increasingly, though, savvy parents and guidance counselors have figured out that their kids (especially girls) have a better shot at getting into prestigious colleges by applying early.  Also, the more kids who get their decisions out of the way by December, the less work for overburdened high school counselors at crunch time in the spring.

Early decision means that if you’re admitted, you’ve committed to attend that school, while early action means you’re in but don’t have to go. Under Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford’s early action, you commit not to apply early to other private universities, but you’re free to apply to state schools and any others during the regular admissions rounds. These super-elite colleges are well aware that very few people will say no to them.

Read: How to use a Moneyball strategy for college applications and find excellent schools that are undervalued

Meanwhile, some aspiring elite colleges have two early decision rounds, parallel early action and early decision tracks—anything to get their yield (the percentage of admitted students who actually matriculate) higher.

Why the sudden surge? First of all, almost every top school has gone test-optional this year, so students who wouldn’t have scored 1500 or better on their SATs are giving them a shot. Also, with so many students coming back after deferring admission for a year, the number of available seats has shrunk, and early decision looks appealing.

Finally, international students who couldn’t come to the U.S. because of COVID and feared the Trump administration’s restrictive immigration policies now are applying early in droves as vaccination lowers infection rates and President Biden charts a more tolerant course.

But as it has done for work, COVID may wind up changing college admissions permanently, too. “The brands of elite universities are more coveted in a market of uncertainty,” Dr. Paul Lowe, head of Connecticut-based Ivy League Admissions Advisors, emailed me. “Based on what happened this admissions cycle, submission of applications early will become the norm.”

Howard Gold is a columnist at MarketWatch. No-Nonsense College appears monthly. Follow him on Twitter @howardrgold1.

More from Howard Gold: Here’s where your college tuition really goes — because professors don’t do much teaching

And: To get the most college financial aid for your child, take these steps during sophomore year of high school

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