The ongoing debate over early admissions programs at elite schools has largely focused on low-income students, but the impact of recent decisions about early admissions on this group is still uncertain.

When University officials announced earlier this month that Yale will keep its early action program, they said early admission does not give unfair benefits to privileged applicants. But when Harvard and Princeton universities eliminated their early admissions programs in September, they claimed the decision would benefit low-income students, who are less likely to apply early and receive the corresponding advantages. Many college counselors and admissions experts said low-income students often are not able to apply early — an option they said provides students with an upper hand in the process — and that the disadvantage may not be overcome in the regular decision cycle.

Dean of Admissions Jeff Brenzel said the early action option allows financial aid applicants the opportunity to be accepted early, but still apply elsewhere regular decision and compare financial aid packages. Earlier this month, President Richard Levin said in an interview with the Yale Alumni Magazine that even if fewer low-income students apply early, the admissions office will be able to make up for that deficiency during the regular cycle.

Brenzel said all applicants are evaluated by their individual opportunities and achievements, not according to socioeconomic quotas.

“Many of our best low-income applicants apply early; even if they represent a smaller proportion of the pool, it’s not whether they apply early or regular that counts,” he said. “It’s whether they present the right academic promise, and we certainly have our radar out for students like that.”

But some college counselors said it is unusual that low-income students apply early at all.

Ilene Abrams, college adviser at the public Berkeley High School in Berkeley, Calif., said in her experience, low-income students usually are not prepared to apply by the November deadline.

“I have seniors right now coming in and telling me they’re still working on applications, mostly low-income and first-generation college students,” she said. “I can’t think of one middle- or high-income student who’s ever told me that this late.”

Bruce Bailey, director of college counseling at Lakeside School in Seattle, Wash., said he thinks Yale’s extensive resources, including its generous financial aid program, make it more realistic for low-income students to apply early. But since many disadvantaged students do not receive adequate counseling, he said, few even hear about the option of applying early.

But Mary Lee Hoganson, president of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, said while it is worthwhile to consider that low-income students might be less likely to apply early, schools offering the early option are still very much in a position to accommodate those students through the regular decision process.

“From my personal experience, students who are less savvy about the college application process — often from less-privileged schools and family backgrounds — are less aware and have less access to the early plan,” she said. “But I suppose the other argument would be that because most institutions don’t fill up their classes from the early pool, those opportunities still exist for students later in the process.”

For students, one key advantage of early admissions for all students is the higher acceptance rate, college counselors and high school students said. Yale accepted 17.7 percent of early applicants and 7.5 percent of regular applicants for the Class of 2010.

Abrams said she thinks the higher acceptance rate of early versus regular applicants does not stem solely from the larger number of highly-qualified students who are applying early. Instead, she said, she believes colleges automatically look more favorably upon early applicants because they are expressing a clear preference for their schools.

But Bruce Bailey, director of college counseling at Lakeside School in Seattle, Wash., said he does not believe students usually know which school will be the best fit for them as early as November.

“You see a pretty dramatic maturation in seniors from October to April,” he said. “I think they look at things a little differently, which it seems would make the choice of colleges a much more reasoned and thought-out decision in the spring.”

Although early action does not require that they attend if they are accepted, Bailey said, the excitement of getting in often causes students to choose to matriculate, even though it may not be their ideal school.

The tendency for students to stop applying to other schools after being accepted early can be particularly harmful for low-income students, who then miss the chance to compare different schools’ financial aid packages, said Megan Harlan, director of college guidance at the private Princeton Day School in Princeton, N.J.

High school students agreed with the prevailing view among counselors that early applicants receive advantages, including a higher acceptance rate and more consideration than students who apply regular.

Nicole Van Allen, a junior at Townsend Harris High School in Queens, N.York, said the perception of early admissions among her peers is that early applicants who know where they want to attend are helped in part by being able to express a clear preference to admissions officers. This may help them achieve the higher acceptance rate, she said.

Lizzie Wojcik, a junior at Romeoville High School in Romeoville, Ill., said she is planning on applying early to Stanford University next year for a number of reasons. For example, she said, she has her heart set on a particular school so she is more motivated to get the paperwork done. In addition, she said she believes early applicants benefit from receiving admissions officers’ first consideration, ahead of regular applicants.

“I’m going to have a better chance applying early because that’s the first batch they’re going to see of everyone,” she said.

Jeannie Borin, president of the admissions consulting firm College Connections, said she has seen many students hesitate before applying early because of concerns that they will not get the best financial aid package. But due to the belief that there is a better chance of acceptance in the early cycle, many students still choose to apply in November, she said.

“I think as college expenses continue to rise […] you’re going to have more kids applying regular,” Borin said. “But as long as there’s an advantage in terms of the percentage — more students accepted early — you will still have that group applying early because they want to increase their odds.”