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Early Admission: Diversity Trumps Yield

Aditya Kohli

In an effort to level the undergraduate playing field and increase diversity, Harvard and Princeton recently abandoned their Early Action and Early Decision programs, respectively. MIT currently employs an Early Action policy by which applicants who are accepted early can wait to accept their offer until April. Harvard employed a similar policy; however, it was “single choice,” which meant that an applicant could only apply to Harvard early. Princeton, however, employed an early decision policy such that if an applicant was accepted early decision to Princeton, they were bound to Princeton. The disparate nature of these policies complicates the application process, and a complicated process tends to favor the economically advantaged.

The recent eradication of early policies at Harvard and Princeton culminate a 10 year “arms race” by elite universities trying to gain a top U.S. News College ranking. One method used to buttress rankings is the early admission program, as it often binds the applicant to a particular school and thus increases the yield percentage of that institution. MIT’s yield rate has increased from 55 percent in the mid 1990’s to 67 percent for the class of 2010. MIT’s acceptance rate has fallen three percent in the last two years. In that same period, it has climbed three spots in the rankings, from seventh to fourth. But are rankings really the best indicator of a good policy? Fairness in admissions and openness to diversity trump rankings.

Wealthy students have been caught up in an arms race of their own — hiring expensive consultants and tutors to fine tune college applications is now the norm. But the buildup in spending on pre-college expenses leaves behind a significant part of the applicant pool, as many applicants to top schools do not have the resources to hire consultants or attend schools with such strategically aware college counselors. MIT admits 26 percent of its class early, and the early admissions rate is significantly higher than the regular decision rate. At a top tier private high school, the norm is to apply early to a top school, thereby increasing one’s chance of getting in. Conversely, at an inner city public school where the majority of the student body does not attend college, students are less likely to be encouraged to apply early. They should not be penalized in the application process.

An early application process forces students to play a strategy game with universities. Savvy applicants will hedge their risk by applying early to certain schools while applying regular decision to others. Those not privileged enough to have access to strategic advice are subsequently at a disadvantage in the admissions process. By creating an extra step in the admissions process, early policies further stress by increasing opportunities for rejection along the way. Eliminating the early program would reduce some of the frenzy and hype associated with college admissions. Having a standard admission procedure would remove some of the importance of strategy from the admissions process, forcing it to be more merit based. Moreover, having one admissions process in the spring could leave more time to recruit diversity in the fall.

Finally, the epidemic of senioritis is perpetuated by an early admissions program. Students admitted in December often under-perform for the rest of their high school terms, depriving themselves of almost a quarter of their education and their schools of a more dynamic campus.

Colleges that close their early admissions programs are taking a risk, as they are giving up a competitive advantage to other universities. If MIT were to institute a binding early decision policy, it could entice strong candidates away from Harvard and Princeton. Its yield rate would increase and it would rocket up to near the top of the U.S. News rankings. However, MIT should recognize that its role is not just to promote itself, but to better society: making a change to boost stats at the cost of fairness would be a step backwards. If there is an opportunity to increase the legitimacy of the admissions process, it needs to be taken. If MIT and other institutions do not follow Harvard and Princeton’s lead, their efforts will have been wasted.

“It has the capacity to change a lot of things in this business … It’s bold enough for other schools to really reconsider what they’re doing. I wish them so much luck in this,” Marilee Jones, MIT dean of admissions, told The New York Times. Since MIT recognizes the prudence of the new policies, our admissions office should not allow apprehension about the risks involved to deter its implementation. Given MIT’s ability to attract students — evidenced by a low admissions rate coupled with a high yield rate, we should have little to fear. In fact, MIT could take a step further than its competitors and set its own precedent by eliminating another barrier to application for the less wealthy: the application fee. If the goal is to even the playing field, the revenue gained from this fee should be insignificant compared to the benefits of increasing diversity.

We should not set precedent by blindly following Harvard; however, in this case, we should follow their moral lead by eliminating our early action program.