Wake Forest’s Admissions Gambit

Can the private institution privilege first-generation students without running afoul of the law?

Wake Forest University has launched a new program catering to first-generation college students to help them beat the yearly application rush. The initiative is bucking a trend whereby progressives attempt to rein in programs that allow students who apply in advance of the regular admissions timetable to improve their odds of being accepted. Data show that students who take advantage of such opportunities tend to be white and international students of wealth and educational advantage.

Experts in the college-recruitment arena are taking a wait-and-see approach about the infant program’s prognosis for success. Some view the Wake Forest strategy as a possible workaround to the recent Supreme Court ruling that UNC-Chapel Hill and Harvard University violated the Constitution’s Equal-Protection Clause by imposing overt, race-conscious admissions policies.

Some see Wake Forest’s strategy as a possible workaround to the recent Supreme Court ruling.To appreciate why Wake Forest is receiving attention as the first top-30 national university to offer this kind of early-action plan, one must first understand the significance of early-application cycles at elite colleges. Enrolling large percentages of a class through limited offerings prior to regular admissions timeframes reduces the number of seats available for everyone else. That makes the acceptance rate for the high volume of regular applications much lower, further solidifying a school’s reputation as being highly selective, with degrees that are highly prized.

The most prominent method to accomplish this is called “Early Decision.” Prospective students can apply in the fall in exchange for committing to attend that college if accepted. They get a decision in December, well in advance of typical notification dates. Applicants pursuing “Early Action,” by contrast, enjoy similar time intervals but do not have to commit if they receive an acceptance offer. They can continue to shop around using cost-comparison or other criteria. Deadlines for “Regular Decision,” the most common application type, are usually in January, with notification in late March or early April.

According to the College Board, about 450 colleges have early-decision or early-action programs, and some have both. The National Association for College Admission Counseling provided data to the Martin Center from its most recent survey, from 2019, showing that 37 percent of private colleges—including 56 percent of selective colleges—have early-decision programs, compared to 5 percent of public institutions. While only 6 percent of all applications for fall 2018 came through Early Decision, the acceptance rate was 61 percent, compared to 49 percent for regular applications. Just 38 percent of four-year colleges offered early-action plans, and 45 percent of applications were submitted through them. Early Action showed a 73-percent acceptance rate, versus 64 percent for regular applications.

In announcing its nonbinding early-action option, Wake Forest said it lowered barriers that first-generation students encounter in navigating admissions decisions. The university just completed its early-action application period on Nov. 15 but did not provide any numbers. A spokeswoman told the Martin Center that Eric Maguire, vice president for enrollment, was not available for an interview. Instead, she sent a link to a months-old press release.

“That’s an unusual program. I’ll be curious to see how it works,” James Murphy, deputy director of higher-education policy at Education Reform Now, told the Martin Center.

Wake Forest said it was lowering barriers that first-generation students encounter.“I don’t have a criticism of Wake Forest doing it. I am skeptical about how effective it will be. We’ll find out in a few years,” Murphy said. “The truly radical thing to do would be to flip that. Only allow first-generation students to apply Early Decision where they could lock in all those spots and let everybody else apply Early Action. I think we can figure out why they didn’t do that.”

The “why” was further explained by Tamy-Fee Meneide, director of college counseling at Solomon Admissions Consulting. The high-powered New York City-based firm provides counseling and coaching to help college-bound students get enrolled in their dream institutions. It boasts better-than-national-average placement rates at Ivy League schools and selective universities such as Duke, where the acceptance rate for Solomon clients was recently 37.5 percent, compared to a 6.3-percent national rate.

“I don’t think that, from a business-model perspective, higher-education institutions would get rid of Early Decision. I see them proactively moving away from Early Action,” Meneide said during an interview with the Martin Center. “I see them proactively moving away from anything that would not secure their seats and be sure that they have a full class, because, at the end of the day, higher education is a business model.”

The early-decision business model centers on attracting a significant portion of an incoming class as soon as possible, to ensure early certainty that the institution’s revenue needs will be met. However, Early Decision is the vehicle often used by self-paying white and international students, legacy students, children of donors, and athletes. Often left outside looking in are low-income and under-represented populations. Because they are not self-paying, they generally need to see what financial aid is available before accepting an offer. Typically, that rules out the early-decision route, because it binds them to that college. If they can’t afford to attend even after the financial-aid package is announced, they can be left in the lurch.

“High Point University in your home state is kind of famous for doing all sorts of things to get students to apply early,” Murphy said. “They’ll promise a parking space and early choices on student classes.”

Meneide is intrigued by Wake Forest’s new plan but does not view it as an outlier.

There is momentum in some corners to do away with early-decision programs.“I think it makes them sort of an out-of-the-box thinker in how they can continue to use Early Action to serve a unique population for something that they’re seeing as a unique need, and for a unique characteristic that they would like to hold onto in their community” she said. “They’re holding onto a value.”

Though she didn’t say it, the value comes from ensuring student-population diversity in the wake of the Supreme Court decision. As Forbes put it in a recent article, “Wake Forest, this year, has allowed only first-generation students, whose parents did not graduate from college, to apply early action. That was a particularly elegant way of addressing the desire for campus diversity on the heels of the Supreme Court decision striking down affirmative actions.”

Meneide acknowledged there is momentum in some corners to do away with early-decision programs to offset the impact of the Supreme Court decision on diversity admissions. Applicants have a leg up in getting into college, especially the elite universities, if their parents have college and graduate-level degrees and understand the value of Early Decision. They come from families that have the financial means to send their children to private secondary schools, where counselors work under the assumption that students will use Early Decision and retain the services of private college counseling and recruitment firms.

“Right now if we’re looking at who does it mostly serve, it would be serving a particular socioeconomic class and population of students,” Meneide said. “So I wouldn’t say that the Early Decision process is the most inclusive process. I would say that it is an exclusionary process.”

“There’s lots of reasons to find fault with Early Decision and Early Action,” Murphy said. “But it may not be completely evil. I think legacy is just completely unethical; there’s no justification for it. Early Decision, on the other hand, can do good.”

Murphy said that, in the past year, he has spoken to college-access organizations, workers in public schools with historically under-represented students, and first-generation and low-income students who told him they see value in Early Decision. As a result, he is more ambivalent about the program than he was last year when he authored an issue brief titled “The Future of Fair Admissions.”

That report concluded that Early Decision is unfair and should be banned everywhere. Alternatively, it recommended keeping such programs but reforming them to broadly increase awareness of the benefits of applying early, infuse greater data transparency, and require colleges using it to meet the full financial needs of applicants so that lower-income students could take advantage of the preference.

Colleges are grappling with how to reformat early-admissions processes to make them more equitable.At least one opponent of race-based admissions policies sees no constitutional harm with Early Decision.

“‘Early decision’ likely is not a legally actionable admissions factor since it applies to all applicants regardless of race,” Edward Blum, president of Students for Fair Admissions, told the Martin Center. SFFA is the nonprofit organization that was the plaintiff in the Supreme Court’s Harvard/UNC decision.

Meneide isn’t calling for an end to Early Decision. But she said colleges and those in the admissions-counseling field are grappling with how to reformat and shape-shift the process to make it more equitable. There is no clear answer. She suggests a starting point would be requiring a multi-pronged approach involving greater awareness in low-resourced schools. Higher-education institutions with the resources should implement need-blind applications. Policy funding from state and federal Departments of Education should be allocated, supplemented by foundation, grant, and private funding.

“I applaud the universities and colleges that are stepping outside the box to be able to do innovative programming like Early Action specifically focused on a particular population,” Meneide said, adding a caveat. “I wonder if that will spark particular lawsuits around things like this because everybody is on edge about being excluded, particularly around this SCOTUS decision.”

Her concern may be well-placed in this time of uncertainty over what workarounds to the Supreme Court ruling would be deemed permissible.

“SFFA is monitoring many new admissions criteria with an eye on new litigation,” Blum said without elaboration. “Some policies are not actionable, but many others may well be.”

Dan E. Way is a senior communications manager in the North Carolina Department of State Treasurer. He was previously a writer for Carolina Journal and the editor of the Chapel Hill Herald.