Early Decision applications are rising at some of the most selective universities that offer the program, which requires students to enroll if admitted.
Anecdotal reports from Northwestern, Penn and Duke suggest the early, binding admission decision is more popular than ever at first-tier schools that offer ED as a choice. An important caveat: several top universities abandoned Early Decision with great fanfare a few years ago, amid debate on whether the program helped or hindered students.
Early Decision is widely regarded as a good choice for a student who is dead-set on a particular university, especially if the school has a financial aid program based entirely on need. Schools that offer merit aid might offer less aid to a student who has promised to attend.
ED can improve a student's chances for admission. Early Decision students are attractive to colleges because they boost the "yield" of admitted students who choose to attend, and because they can fill a big part of the freshman class months ahead of the regular admission cycle.
The downsides: Students who apply early cannot change their mind. And they potentially lose out on an admissions bidding war among several colleges in the regular admissions cycle.
Penn's ED applicant pool has increased 17 percent to 4,500, the largest number of applications the university has ever received by the Nov. 1 deadline. Penn has a higher admission rate under Early Decision and an aid policy that pledges to meet full need without loans.
At Northwestern, ED apps are up more than 25 percent to at least 2,100.
Duke's ED applications are up 14 percent to 2,282.
"We are interested in students who are willing to make that level of commitment and we respond to it," said Christoph Guttentag, Duke's undergraduate admissions dean, in a statement.
Recent data from the National Association for College Admission Counseling show that 65 percent of colleges with ED accepted more students through the program in 2009 than in the prior year, compared with 43 percent in 2008 and 36 percent in 2007.