Top colleges are filling more of their classes in early-admissions programs that favor affluent families, placing another barrier before poorer students hoping to better themselves through higher education.

Families that need financial aid often wait for the regular round, which starts this month, so they can compare aid offers. Because early-decision programs require a binding commitment to one school in November and boost admissions chances, many slots are taken before lower-income students even apply.

At Northwestern and Duke, about half the spots for this fall’s freshman class are already spoken for. Ten years ago, the universities each took about a quarter through early admissions. Vanderbilt expects its class to be as much as 44 percent full by next month, compared with a third a decade ago.

“The scale is definitely tipped to the kids who have more behind them financially,” said Bruce Poch, former dean of admissions at Pomona College in Claremont, California. The trend of colleges filling up early “has gotten more extreme in recent years.”

Such programs aren’t helping Jackson Le, a high school senior from Quincy, Massachusetts. His single mother, who emigrated from Vietnam, has a job as a manicurist in a nail salon.

Senior Envy

Le has his sights on Boston University. Since he needs to shop around for the best financial aid possible, he didn’t apply there for early decision in the fall. The percentage of places filled early at Boston University has doubled to 20 percent over the past seven years. He envies wealthier classmates who are already broadcasting their acceptance letters on Twitter.

“It makes me sad because I wish I had that opportunity to apply early,” said Le, 18, an honors student who works as much as 20 hours a week at Starbucks to help pay for college.

The College Board counted 460 schools last year offering early admissions. That’s up from about 100 in the 1990s, according to a 2010 study by Christopher Avery, a public policy professor at Harvard University, and Jonathan Levin, an economist at Stanford University. Colleges say scholarships are available to those who apply early, and they are increasing such aid so more low-income students can attend.

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