Harvard Wait-Lists Admissions Reform

Harvard has no plans to change its early admissions programs, in spite of Yale University President Richard Levin’s ongoing campaign for colleges to discontinue both early action and early decision.

Early admissions programs have come under scrutiny recently with Levin’s discussion of doing away with early decision at Yale.

Just last week, Levin met with a Justice Department official to discuss whether jointly agreeing with other schools to abolish early admissions would violate antitrust laws that prohibit colleges from collaborating on admissions procedures.

But Harvard admissions officials say Harvard will keep its non-binding early action program.

“We have no plans to abandon early action,” says Marlyn McGrath Lewis ’70-’73, director of admissions.

Levin has objected to early decision, saying that it does not permit admitted students to compare financial aid packages from other schools.

But Harvard’s early action is non-binding, which means that once admitted early to Harvard, students are not bound to accept Harvard’s offer. Instead, they can wait to see what financial aid packages they receive from other schools in the regular admissions cycle.

“We always feel it is right for students to compare other options,” says Sally C. Donahue, director of financial aid.

But Levin also criticizes the early action program because he says it unnecessarily speeds up the application process, making it more stressful for high school seniors who have to submit their applications early in the fall.

McGrath Lewis agrees that the early admissions process creates “a feeling of urgency,” especially at competitive colleges, where applying early is often said to increase admissions chances.

“For a long time we wished that the application process could be slowed down a bit,” she says.

Although Harvard has no current plans to reform its early programs, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 says Harvard might be willing to consider change in the future.

“If the landscape changed, we would be interested in possibilities for students to apply to colleges and find out in April,” Fitzsimmons says.

But for now, he said, doing away with the early admissions program would put Harvard at a disadvantage in competing with peer schools to attract students.

“To have no early program, while other colleges do, would hurt Harvard,” Fitzsimmons says.

With the exception of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which recently decided to discontinue its early decision program, there seems to be little support for Levin’s plan.

Last year Brown University changed its early action program to early decision.

And admissions officials at the University of Pennsylvania said the school would stick with their early decision program.

“We have no plans to make any changes,” says Lee Stetson, dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania. “If the pressure is so great that a student cannot make a conscious decision, that student should not apply early.”

—Staff writer Robert M. Annis can be reached at annis@fas.harvard.edu.