Harvard and Princeton each announced Thursday that they would revive their early-admission programs, allowing high school seniors who apply by next Nov. 15 to get a decision by Dec. 15 without having to promise to attend the college if admitted.
In September 2006, when both universities decided to eliminate early admissions for those starting college in 2008, Harvard and Princeton said they wanted to start a trend that would help even the playing field between wealthy applicants and those who needed to compare financial aid offers from different colleges. But only the University of Virginia followed their lead — and it announced last year that it would reinstate early admissions.
“In eliminating our early program four years ago, we hoped other colleges and universities would do the same, and they haven’t,” said Shirley M. Tilghman, Princeton’s president. “One consequence is that some students who really want to make their college decision as early as possible in their senior year apply to other schools early, even if their first choice is Princeton.”
Meanwhile, with the economic downturn, a growing number of applicants sought early admission, leading the universities who had abandoned their programs to lose out on some top students.
“The very people we were targeting, people from modest economic backgrounds, were sent into a high state of anxiety and uncertainty by the economy, and it reached the point where, this past year, record numbers of people were applying early,” said William R. Fitzsimmons, Harvard’s dean of admissions. “At many high schools it was very common to have 60, 70, 80 percent of the students applying early, and we heard rumors that in some cases, it went up to 100 percent.”
Michael D. Smith, dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, said, “We looked carefully at trends in Harvard admissions these past years and saw that many highly talented students, including some of the best-prepared low-income and underrepresented minority students, were choosing programs with an early-action option, and therefore were missing out on the opportunity to consider Harvard.”
According to David Hawkins, director of public policy and research at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, about a quarter of four-year colleges offer early decisions, whether through nonbinding early action or binding early decision.
Few colleges — Stanford and Yale among them — offer the kind of single-choice, nonbinding early-action program that Harvard and Princeton will use, in which students may apply early to only one college.
“A single-choice early-action plan lets students tell us we’re their first choice, so we get a start on building the class,” said Janet L. Rapelye, Princeton’s dean of admission. “At the same time, it allows them to apply to other schools, and for students who need a generous financial aid package, gives them freedom to compare, so it’s a win-win for them.”
Almost 59 percent of Princeton’s first-year class receives financial aid, and the average grant is $35,157.
More than 60 percent of Harvard College students receives scholarship aid, and the average grant is about $38,000.