Attention high school seniors: Did you submit a college application based on the school’s “early decision” or “early action” deadline? If so, you may have significantly increased your chances of getting accepted. According to an analysis of 2009 admission rates at 233 colleges by U.S. News & World Report, acceptance rates were an average of 15 percent higher for early applicants than for those who submitted their applications by the regular deadline.

In many cases, the difference in acceptance rates is much higher than 15 percent. For example, the University of Arkansas admitted 89 percent of early applicants, but its acceptance rate for regular applicants was only 32 percent – a 57 percent spread. In a ranking of 50 colleges with high early acceptance rates, U.S. News & World Report found that the difference in early and regular acceptance rates ranged from 25 percent to 75 percent.

The analysis is already generating debate among observers who contend the high admission rates simply reflect the fact that better students tend to apply early. But some colleges report that they do give preference to early applicants, which may be fueling the record number of early applications being reported this year. “Students who are ready to make a commitment can take advantage of the preference generally given to binding early-decision applicants,” Christoph Guttentag, Duke University’s dean of undergraduate admissions wrote in an e-mail to Bloomberg News.    

There also is considerable debate about whether early applications are in the best interests of students.  High school seniors who apply under the “Early Decision” rule have to promise to attend the college if accepted. That means that if they require financial aid, they cannot receive competing offers from other schools. In contrast, “Early Action” admission is not binding and does allow applicants to consider competing financial aid offers before making a commitment. Harvard University and Princeton University both dropped early admissions programs because of concerns that the process might put lower-income families at a disadvantage.

Lloyd Thacker, executive director of Education Conservancy, agrees that early admissions programs provide an unfair advantage to wealthier families. “Early programs don’t give everybody the same chance,” Thacker told Bloomberg News, “We already know there are many disadvantages and advantages built in related to where students are on the socio- economic ladder.”