Research by Chris Avery, Andrew Fairbanks and Richard Zeckhauser showed that early admissions (EA) programs give applicants a boost in college admissions.  Improved chances of admissions might reflect a better applicant pool and not an advantage built into the early admissions process.  But Avery et al controlled for this and still found that EA gives applicants an advantage.

EA applicants are constrained in their choices should they actually be admitted.  To attract them, colleges have to offer lower standards for acceptance for early admission than for regular applicants who have more freedom of choice.  Done in isolation, EA might benefit a college, as it steals above average students from its competitors.  But if one college is employing EA, so must others, to recapture some of those students they lost.  When all colleges use EA, the average quality of the student pool in each college may actually decline, because slots are taken up by the lower quality early applicants who crowd out high quality regular applicants.  A Prisoners’ Dilemma.

There are other effects.  Early applicants get worse deals on financial aid as they cannot play off multiple offers.  So, early admission will attract wealthy students.  They will also be more clued into the system.  There are impacts on diversity.

But one or two colleges cannot change the equilibrium on their own.  All have to give it up.  Harvard and Princeton tried to drop EA but most other colleges did not.  After all, the quality of Yale etc EA applicants goes up as Harvard and Princeton drop their programs.  So it all fell apart and now both Princeton and Harvard have reinstated EA.  A Harvard Dean says:

“We looked carefully at trends in Harvard admissions these past years and saw that many highly talented students, including some of the best-prepared low-income and underrepresented minority students, were choosing programs with an early-action option, and therefore were missing out on the opportunity to consider Harvard.”

EA can impact all sorts of settings.  A player can try to cream skim before competitors notice.  And so NU student Kota Saito heads off to Caltech without even going on the job market.  I know MEDS has dome something similar in the past.  Will other universities start doing this sort of thing too?