Rachel Aveni of Melrose applied early to New York University, one of this country’s most expensive private colleges.

It was her dream school, and her high school voice teacher told her she’d have a better chance of getting in if she applied early.

It worked. She got in and was thrilled — until the financial aid offer came in the mail.

“I cried when I first got it because I didn’t think it was going to be enough,” Aveni said.

Many selective institutions, including most of the private colleges in Massachusetts, admit nearly half of their incoming classes through early decision — a binding application that all but guarantees the applicants will attend. It’s a benefit to students who can commit to a college early and pay the tuition and fees — like NYU’s $90,000-a-year price tag — before seeing a financial aid package.

“It’s definitely functioning as affirmative action for the rich,” said Elizabeth Heaton, a former admissions official at the University of Pennsylvania.

But among the highly selective Massachusetts colleges that report their admission rates, they appear to be offering more seats to early decision applicants over the past decade, not fewer.

Heaton said colleges like to use early decision “as a way to guarantee a certain percentage of the class right off the bat” and the dollars those students will bring in.

With affirmative action in college admissions eliminated by the Supreme Court, and a handful of universities ending legacy admissions for the children of alumni, early decision has come under fresh scrutiny.

The Biden administration is now encouraging colleges to get creative about ways to achieve racial diversity on campus. And legislation has been proposed in both Massachusetts and New York state legislatures to tax or eliminate early admissions at private and public colleges and universities.

The Massachusetts proposal would create a trust fund with proceeds from a fee assessed to colleges that offer early decision or give preference to legacy students, then use that money to help community college students.

In New York, lawmakers introduced a bill would prohibit legacy and early admissions outright, calling both practices “discriminatory” and “inequitable.”

Bryan Cook, director of higher education policy at the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute, said students who attend private high schools or prestigious “feeder” schools also tend to know more about quiet advantages like early decision.

“We know disproportionately low-income and individuals of color often aren't thinking about college until the start of their senior year, best case scenario, maybe toward the end of their senior year, worst case scenario,” he said.

GBH News reached out to 24 private colleges in Massachusetts that offer early decision to understand why they offer it. Just three responded; 21 either didn’t respond or declined to comment.

Boston University, Bentley University and Amherst College defended the practice, saying they meet most students’ financial aid needs.

BU officials said students who apply early receive their financial aid offer alongside their acceptance letter.

The university said it admitted 55% of this year’s freshman class, or more than half, through early decision.

Seven of the 10 wealthiest colleges in the state make use of it: Amherst College, Boston College, Boston University, Smith College, Tufts University, Wellesley College and Williams College. Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology offer early action — which is not binding, so, unlike early decision, students can apply to more than one school.

Harvard terminated its early decision program nearly two decades ago in a bid to improve equity and help alleviate admissions stress.

“If we’re going to use admissions policy to generate revenue, then the colleges might as well just ... auction off acceptance letters on eBay to the highest bidder.”
Michael Dannenberg, College Promise

Not all colleges and universities disclose their early decision admission rates. Smith College, for example, has doubled the share of seats it fills with early decision students to almost 60% since 2013.

Catharine Hill, the former president of Vassar College, said the uptick in early decision admissions during the pandemic likely reflected colleges’ fears that COVID-19 would hurt enrollment, and consequently finances.

“Schools were absolutely terrified about whether they were going to be able to fill their classes,” said Hill, who is now managing director at Ithaka S+R, a research firm. “COVID just brought an amazing amount of uncertainty. To the extent that institutions could lock students in, they did it.”

What ending early admissions would mean

Under the proposal now being considered by the Massachusetts Joint Committee on Higher Education, colleges would be required to report their early admission rates and pay a fee for the practice.

State Rep. Simon Cataldo of Concord, who co-sponsored the bill, estimated that the fees would bring in more than $120 million to state coffers annually — funds that would be redirected to community colleges.

“Schools are actively keeping them out by elevating rich students for those same spots” through early decision, Cataldo said.

Rob McCarron, the president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Massachusetts, said that legislation would put Massachusetts universities at a competitive disadvantage. He believes colleges would drop early decision admissions to avoid paying the fee, and that Massachusetts high school students would apply early elsewhere.

McCarron said it might make colleges in other states more attractive to students.

It would also “discourage thousands of out-of-state students from coming to college here,” he said.

Michael Dannenberg at the nonprofit College Promise has lobbied for states and the federal government to push colleges to end early decision altogether.

“Fundamentally, early decision undermines diversity. It fails to reward achievement,” he said. “If we’re going to use admissions policy to generate revenue, then the colleges might as well just be above board about the whole lack of ethics associated with it and auction off acceptance letters on eBay to the highest bidder.”

But eliminating early decision would also come at a time when more Black and brown students are benefitting from it.

Tiauna Walker won admission to Bates College in Maine, applying early in 2016. Her father, Edward Walker, was one of the few Black students at the school when he graduated from Bates just over 20 years ago.

Edward Walker is also a college consultant. He said more low-income students need to know early decision is an option, instead of eliminating it.

“Any institution would be foolish to not consider the fact that they can enroll the student who’s going to pay full price,” he said. “When you’re a private institution, although you might have a decent endowment, you have lots of bills to pay and you need families that can cut the check so that the institution can pay the bills.”

A man with short hair and a goatee wears a bright white polo shirt.
Edward Walker worked as an admission official at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. Bates hired him to help the private school diversify its classes racially and economically. Behind closed doors, he found the college often prioritized wealthy white students through its early decision program. “Any institution would be foolish to not consider the fact that they can enroll the student who’s going to pay full price,” he said.
Kirk Carapezza GBH

Walker said his daughter received generous financial aid, too.

“It definitely helped,” Walker said. “I wasn’t cutting a $72,000 check every year.”

A Bates spokesperson said the college’s applicant pool has become “more diverse and representative” over the years while offering early decision. The college declined to provide data about the diversity of its applicant pool.

Rachel Aveni, the self-described “theater kid,” lives in New York City now.

Despite the tears she shed after seeing her financial aid package at NYU, she and her family made it work with a combination of loans and savings.

“I think I was so excited to be going to NYU and my parents were so excited, too, it was like, ’We’ll just figure it out,’” she said.

This fall, Aveni’s on campus working toward her degree, and her mom went back to work to help pay for it.

This story has been updated to reflect that the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Massachusetts did not single out the states that could benefit from proposed changes to Massachusetts' laws around early decision.

A woman with shaggy brown hair is sitting on a curb, looking over her shoulder at the camera. A university building can be faintly seen in the background.
Rachel Aveni applied early to New York University and said she cried after seeing her financial aid package. "I didn’t think it was going to be enough," she said.
José A. Alvarado Jr. for GBH News