The percentage of students admitted early to Yale rose from 16.6 percent for the Class of 2008 to 17.9 percent for the Class of 2009, Dean of Admissions Richard Shaw said last week.

Yale accepted 704 students in mid-December out of a total early applicant pool of 3,933 students, a 1.3 percent increase from last year when Yale admitted 670 of its 4,046 early applicants. The admissions office deferred 47 percent of its applicants and denied 33 percent, which is in line with previous years’ statistics, Shaw said.

This year’s acceptance rate, coupled with a 2.8 percent decrease in the number of applications received, represents a leveling off of early action application figures after Yale received a record number of applications in 2003, its first year offering single-choice, non-binding early action.

Still, Yale had the lowest early acceptance rate in the Ivy League and bested most of its peer institutions except the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But while Yale’s early acceptance rate increased, many other Ivy League schools saw modest decreases in their acceptance rates.

Yale admissions officers increased the number of students admitted early this year because of the overall strength of the early applicant pool compared to last year, Shaw said.

“I think perhaps we saw a stronger cohort of kids,” Shaw said. “The quality is just extraordinary. There’s a lot of self-selection going on.”

Shaw said he anticipates that about 620 of the 704 accepted students will matriculate and join the Class of 2009, as long as this year’s yield mirrors last year’s rate of 88 percent. With some 1,300 spots available in the class of 2009, about 55 percent of the class is open for regular and deferred applicants, Shaw said, noting that the regular decision admissions cycle is going to be “incredibly competitive” this year.

Joyce Smith, the executive director of the National Association of College Admission Counseling, praised Yale for its relatively low acceptance rate under early action, which she said relieves anxieties of students applying regular decision.

“With a 17 to 18 percent rate of admission, that still leaves a lot of room for students applying in the regular deadline to feel like they still have a chance,” said Smith.

The demographics of Yale’s early applicant pool this year shifted markedly, Shaw said, including an increase in the number of students applying from public schools. Geographically, Yale admitted an increased number of applicants from the Midwest and the West, Shaw said. The 351 men and 353 women admitted early hail from 46 states and 40 countries. Similar to last year, about 29 percent of the them are students of color and 5.3 percent are from foreign countries.

Mitchell Reich, a senior at The Dalton School in New York who was admitted early to Yale this year, said he was “totally shocked” when he first viewed his admissions decision online.

“It was only when people started calling me and congratulating me that I said, ‘Hey, cool,'” Reich said.

Harvard University offered admission to 21 percent of its 4,213 early applicants, the second-lowest early acceptance rate in the Ivy League, behind Yale. Columbia, Brown and Princeton universities had early decision acceptance rates of 27 percent, 28 percent and 29 percent, respectively. Dartmouth College, the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell University were less selective in their early decision admission processes, admitting 33.6 percent, 34 percent and 41.7 percent of their applicants respectively.

In contrast, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had a lower early action acceptance rate than Yale, admitting just 13.5 percent of its 2,830 applicants. Stanford University, which offered single-choice early action for the second year, admitted 20 percent of its applicants.

Yale denied 1,312 early applicants this year, far more than some of its competing universities. For example, MIT only denied 50 students and deferred everyone else who was not admitted, MIT Dean of Admissions Marilee Jones said. Similarly, Harvard deferred the “vast majority” of students and rejected “very few people,” Harvard Director of Undergraduate Admissions Marlyn McGrath Lewis said.

Sherron Merrow Cuseo, the upper school dean at Harvard-Westlake School — a private preparatory school in North Hollywood, Calif., where the number of early admits to Yale doubled from three to six students this year — praised Yale for being selective in early admissions.

“I think, truthfully, the most selective institutions like Harvard, Yale and Princeton tend to admit who they’re going to admit whenever they apply, which I respect because it takes away some of the gaming,” Merrow Cuseo said. “At other schools, there is a distinct advantage to applying early and different students are admitted early.”