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Flags representing different schools are carried down the Lawn during the 2019 Final Exercises on May 19, 2019, at the University of Virginia.

More than a decade ago, the University of Virginia ended its early decision option amid a push to democratize university applications.

On Thursday, it announced the return of early decision, a binding option that requires students to accept an offer — a situation more likely to appeal to wealthy and well-connected students who don’t need to wait for financial aid offers. Dean of Admissions Greg Roberts said the change came after demand from high school students, adding that the option should help to more quickly determine class size.

“As we started thinking about it and having these conversations, I started reaching out to high school counselors across the state — I don’t know what I was expecting, but they were pretty much unanimously in support,” Roberts said. “By offering early decision, we can now offer plans for each type of student.”

This fall, prospective UVa students will be able to apply via three tracks — early decision, early action and regular decision. Early action allows students to apply early to a number of colleges and pick one of their choosing. UVa has seen more and more students applying through early action, and it posted a record 25,126 early applications this year.

UVa used early decision from the 1960s until 2006, and the next year switched to one deadline in an attempt to simplify the process and attract more low-income applicants.

“The reasons are several, but in the end the effect of early decision nationally and here in Virginia appears to be that the opportunity that early decision has represented has come somehow to be the property of our most advantaged applicants rather than the common property of all applicants,” then-President John T. Casteen III said in 2006, according to The Daily Progress.

Between 1990 and 2006, Casteen said at the time, few students from low-income families used the early decision option. Fewer than 20 of the 947 students accepted under early decision in 2005 applied for financial aid. That year, early decision applicants made up nearly one-third of the eventual first-year class, according to university records.

An influential 2003 report from the Harvard University Press found that early applicants received the equivalent of a 100-point bump on the SAT. According to a 2016 analysis by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, Ivy League schools admit early admissions applications at rates three to five times higher than other applicants.

“Low-income students are half as likely to apply early, even though doing so would dramatically increase their likelihood of admission; this remains true even when applying to institutions that practice so-called ‘need-blind’ admissions,” the foundation report stated. “Recognizing the unfairness of the early admissions practice for low-income students, in 2006 Harvard College, Princeton University and the University of Virginia eliminated early admissions from their processes entirely.”

In 2012, UVa began offering a non-binding early action process in addition to regular decision. Its applications, and offers, have soared since.

J.J. Park, an associate professor of education at the University of Maryland, found in a 2011 study that students who are white, affluent or received private college counseling were most likely to enroll via early admissions, and concluded that early admissions programs — and in particular, the early decision option — perpetuate social privilege.

A university might return to early decision in an effort to control enrollment and financial aid monies, Park suggested on Wednesday, but it should keep student access in mind.

“I do think it’s unfortunate and hope they’ll thoroughly assess how it affects equity,” she said.

Roberts stressed, however, that he views UVa’s application options as a way for students to apply to college on their own timeline, based on their individual needs.

If necessary to maintain a socioeconomically diverse class, he said, UVa might limit the number of spots it offers early decision students. All applications, though, will still be evaluated by the same criteria, regardless of when a student applies.

“It we took half our class through ED, that would be counter to the argument I just made [about students’ needs,]” he said. “We plan to make all of our decisions the exact same way.”

Some schools use early decision as a way to play a numbers game with application and acceptance numbers, which can boost their standing with U.S. News & World Report. A 2016 report by The Washington Post found that many of the nation’s top schools pull nearly half of their incoming freshman through early application processes that favor wealthy and well-connected students. The Post found 37 schools where the early-decision share of enrolled freshmen in 2015 was at least 40%. According to its analysis of top-tier schools, 42% of early decision applicants to the University of Richmond were admitted in 2015, 39% of Washington and Lee students were admitted in 2015, and 50% of early decision applicants to the College of William & Mary were admitted. Each school’s admit rate for their total applicant pool was far lower.

Most top-tier universities offering binding, early decision plans are private schools. Virginia Tech, Christopher Newport University and William & Mary, however, are state universities that offer early decision.

UVa will still offer its non-binding, early action option, which has a deadline of Nov. 1, and its regular decision option, which has a deadline of Jan. 1. Early action and regular decision applicants have until May 1 to pay their enrollment deposit and commit to attending UVa.

Students are all equally eligible for financial aid; the Access UVa program promises to meet 100% of a student’s demonstrated financial need to attend college.

The early decision application will be available this fall. Students must complete the Common Application, which becomes available in August.

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Ruth Serven Smith is a reporter for The Daily Progress. Contact her at (434) 978-7254, or @RuthServen on Twitter.

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