Removal of Harvard Early Admissions Planned For ...07
By Alan Finder
and Karen W. Arenson
THE NEW YORK TIMES
Harvard University, breaking with a major trend in college admissions, plans to eliminate its early admissions program next year, with university officials arguing that such programs put low-income and minority applicants at a distinct disadvantage in the competition to get into selective universities.
Harvard will be the first of the nation’s prestigious universities to do away completely with early admissions, in which high school seniors try to bolster their chances at competitive schools by applying in the fall and learning whether they have been admitted in December, months before other students.
Some universities now admit as much as half of their freshman class this way and many, though not Harvard, require an ironclad commitment from students that they will attend in return for the early acceptance.
Harvard’s decision — to be announced Tuesday — is likely to put pressure on other colleges, which acknowledge the same concerns but have been reluctant to take any step that could put them at a disadvantage in the heated competition for the top students.
“We think this will produce a fairer process, because the existing process has been shown to advantage those who are already advantaged,” Derek Bok, the interim president of Harvard, said Monday in an interview.
Bok said students who were more affluent and sophisticated were the ones most likely to apply for early admission. More than a third of Harvard’s students are accepted through early admission. In addition, he said many early admissions programs require students to lock in without being able to compare financial aid offerings from various colleges.
Bok also spoke about reducing the frenzy surrounding admissions. “I think it will improve the climate in high schools,” he said, “so that students don’t start getting preoccupied in their junior year about which college to go to.”
Many admissions deans and high school guidance counselors greeted Harvard’s decision — which is to go into effect for applicants in the fall of 2007 — with astonishment and delight.
“Wow, it’s incredible,” said Marilee Jones, the dean of admissions at MIT, which has a nonbinding early admissions program.
Jones has spoken widely about reducing the pressure and stress of admissions. “It has the capacity to change a lot of things in this business,” she said. “It’s bold enough for other schools to really reconsider what they’re doing. I wish them so much luck in this.”
Lloyd Thacker, the executive director of the Education Conservancy, a nonprofit group created to lobby for an overhaul in admissions procedures, said his eyes had teared up when he heard the news. “I’m so glad,” Thacker said. “I can’t believe it.”
“The most powerful institution in the country is saying, singularly, yes, something is wrong with this and we’re going to try to act in the public interest,” he added.
The University of Delaware announced a similar move last May.
For three decades, Harvard has offered a particular form of early admissions, in which students who are accepted early still have the freedom to go elsewhere. Various forms of early admissions are offered by hundreds of colleges and universities, with many requiring applicants to commit upfront to attending the university if offered early admission.
The popularity of the procedure grew significantly in the 1990s, as colleges tried to increase their competitive advantage by locking in strong candidates early. It also gave an edge to students willing to commit early to an institution. In some cases, admissions rates are two or three times higher for students who apply early. But at Harvard and many other universities officials have grown concerned that early admissions present a major obstacle to low-income and working-class students.
Such students have also been hurt by steep tuition increases and competition with students from affluent families who spend thousands of dollars on college consultants and tutoring. “I think there are lots of very talented students out there from poor and moderate-income backgrounds who have been discouraged by this whole hocus-pocus of early admissions by many of the nation’s top colleges,” said William R. Fitzsimmons, Harvard College’s dean of admissions and financial aid.
Thacker and other critics said that under binding early admission programs, students have to commit to a college long before they know how much aid they will be offered. Students who apply for admission in the regular cycle are able to compare financial-aid offerings from various colleges before making up their minds in April.
Under Harvard’s early admissions program, which is known as early action, students do not have to decide until May 1 whether to accept an admission offer. Even so, many potential applicants did not understand the distinction between Harvard’s program and those that require an upfront commitment and were discouraged from applying, Bok said.
“We think the more schools abandon this process, the healthier the admissions process will be,” he said.
Of the 2,124 students admitted by Harvard last year, 813 were granted early admission, or 38 percent, Fitzsimmons said.
Under Lawrence H. Summers ’75, the Harvard president who left office in June, the university took a number of steps to make itself more accessible to poor and working-class students. Among other things, families with incomes below $60,000 a year are no longer required to pay for a students’ education.
The idea of abandoning early admission was developed after Bok became interim president in July, said John Longbrake, a Harvard spokesman. Early admission will remain in effect during the current academic year, which is already under way.
Several educators said that only a university with Harvard’s reputation could take the risk involved with eliminating early admission because it will continue to be the first choice for so many top students.
“The one thing that always seemed commonly agreed was that no college could give up its early application program if the others didn’t, too,” said Christopher Avery, a Harvard professor and a co-author of “The Early Admissions Game: Joining the Elite” (Harvard University Press, 2003). “This seems to move to do just that.”
Bruce Hunter, director of college counseling at the Rowland Hall-St. Mark’s School, a private school in Salt Lake City, said he hoped other universities would follow Harvard’s lead, but he was not confident that they would.
“I think that Harvard has calculated that they will not suffer any competitive disadvantage in the process,” Hunter said. “I’m not sure that there are more than a handful of other places that could make the same claim.”
Janet Lavin Rapelye, dean of admission at Princeton University, applauded Harvard’s decision, but said she could not predict how Princeton might respond. Princeton has binding early admission, and Rapelye said there had been questions about whether early admissions limited diversity.
“All of us who sit in these seats have always worried about that,” she said. “Yet we have worked very hard to broaden and deepen our applicant pool at every step in the process.”