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CNN  — 

A college admissions program popular among the country’s most selective universities may actually be skewed against lower-income applicants, college consultants and experts say.

Early decision is an option that allows students to single out their top-choice school and apply to it months before regular applications are due. The choice is binding, but the student is rewarded with an earlier answer from the school, and a higher percentage chance of getting in. Some highly competitive schools pick a large percentage of their incoming freshman class from this applicant pool.

While anyone can apply under the early decision deadline, some students literally can’t afford the risk.

Many students need to compare financial aid offers from multiple schools to negotiate their aid packages. They may also be vying for merit-based aid such as scholarships. For them, applying early decision is a risk.

A study released this month from the Harvard-based research group Opportunity Insights found that students from higher-income backgrounds are more likely to apply early to highly selective and Ivy League schools, many of which offer early decision applications.

For students whose families can afford to pay full or nearly full tuition and fees at these schools, applying early to these schools is a subtle demonstration of financial confidence. Experts say early decision is used at a higher frequency by students who do not need financial aid and who are aware early in their high school careers that applying early offers them a competitive edge.

According to the latest data from the University of Pennsylvania, the acceptance rate for students applying early decision was 16% for the 2022-23 academic year. By comparison, the regular admissions acceptance rate was 5%.

“Typically, we admit about half of the incoming class through the early decision admissions plan,” said a University of Pennsylvania spokesperson.

“It’s really to (the schools’) advantage, so they can fill out their class early,” said Marcella Bombardieri, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. “But when they’re filling easily half of their class early, it’s really reducing the opportunity for lower-income students.”

“In terms of scholarships, there’s a tendency to offer less merit-based aid to (early) applicants, because it’s used to entice students to come