Harvard May Ignore Early Decision

As early as next year, Harvard may allow students who have been accepted under other colleges’ binding early decision programs to apply to and enroll at the College, two professors on the Standing Committee on Admissions and Financial Aid said yesterday.

Harvard’s plan would put other Ivy League schools at a disadvantage, since they could no longer be sure that students they accept early would not instead attend Harvard.

The move would not necessarily mean the collapse of the early decision system, as students accepted under early decision programs still make a commitment to attend the school that accepts them.

But the possibility that students accepted under binding programs could still apply to Harvard would open the door to legal challenges to the early decision system.

Harvard's Director of Admissions Marlyn McGrath Lewis ’70-’73 declined to comment today, and University administrators stressed that no final decision has been made.

But Rotch Professor of Atmospheric and Environmental Science Steven C. Wofsy, who serves on the Faculty committee on admissions and financial aid, said McGrath Lewis had been polling members of the committee over the last few weeks and “didn’t indicate any dissension.”

“If someone makes a deal with another school, that’s their business,” Wofsy said. “But as far as I know, that honoring procedure [of other schools’ early decision programs] is out the window for next year.”

Yale's Dean of Undergraduate Admissions and Financial Aid, Richard Shaw, said it was important that Harvard act collaboratively on early decision.

"Harvard has always respected and acknowledged the binding commitment of early decision programs," he wrote in an e-mail. "I assume they will continue to do so...This is an important year for discussion about early programs and it is also important to reach respectful consensus rather than take unilateral action."

Under early decision programs, students apply in November to one school that they promise to attend if they are accepted in December. But that promise is an "honor-bound agreement" that "doesn't have any legal standing," according to Martin A. Wilder, Vice President for Admission, Counseling, and Enrollment Practices at the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Wilder said that he did not know of any university that had taken legal action against a student accepted under early decision who did not enroll.

Harvard offers an early action program, which does not require students who are accepted early to attend.

According to Gund Professor of Neurosciences John E. Dowling, another member of the committee, University President Lawrence H. Summers has supported moving away from honoring early decision and plans to raise the issue at the next meeting of Ivy League presidents, scheduled for June 17.

“People aren’t happy with everything going on,” Dowling said of the increasing influence of early decision programs. “We’ve all been feeling we’d like to see Harvard exert leadership, and we have a president willing to provide leadership.”

Dowling said Harvard’s dominant position in admissions relative to its competitors makes it possible for the University to go forward unilaterally.

Harvard’s yield—the percentage of accepted students who choose to enroll at the College—is around 80 percent, which is 10 to 15 points higher than its closest competitors. And according to Leverett Professor of Mathematics Benedict H. Gross, who also serves on the admissions committee, more than three-quarters of students who are accepted at Harvard and one of its top three competitors (Yale, Princeton and Stanford) come to Harvard.

“Our yield rate is so much better than anyone else’s that we can make decisions other schools can’t make,” Dowling said.

Dowling said the issue needed to be brought up with other Ivy League universities ahead of time to minimize the negative impact it might have on other schools.

“If we undercut our Ivy League colleagues, that would not be helpful,” he said. “We’re not bound by what they’re doing, but you don’t want to be imperialistic.”

Wofsy also said Harvard would consult with other Ivies this summer but emphasized that Harvard did not need their approval to proceed.

“They’re going to talk to other schools, but it’s not going to be negotiation,” he said. “We’re just going to tell them what we’re doing.”

If implemented, the plan could put additional pressure on high school guidance counselors, according to Wilder.

"Counselors could be in an extremely difficult situation," he said. "If students who were accepted early start shooting off applications to other schools, they'd have to send transcripts out. It would put them in a terrible ethical bind."

Wilder said that the move could also exacerbate the trend of "grossly inflated waitlists" at selective universities due to the "uncertainty of predicting yield."

If colleges cannot be confident that all the students they accept under early decision will enroll, they would need to waitlist more applicants to fill the slots left vacant by students who renege on their early decision agreement.

Negative sentiment about early decision has grown throughout this academic year. In September, James M. Fallows ’70, who is also a Crimson editor, wrote a widely read cover story in the Atlantic Monthly called “The Early Decision Racket” that said binding early programs force students to choose where they want to attend too early and for the wrong reasons.

Three months later, Yale President Richard C. Levin told the New York Times he favored abolishing early decision altogether. Earlier this month, Levin met with Justice Department officials to discuss whether a collective agreement among Ivy League schools to end early decision would violate antitrust laws.

And last month, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill terminated its early decision program, a step Dowling said he thought it was unlikely any Ivy would take because it would put that school at a competitive disadvantage.

Wofsy said Harvard’s honoring of early decision makes little sense, given the opposition to the program on the admissions committee.

“[Why] would we honor a system that stinks?” he said.

—Staff writer Dan Rosenheck can be reached at rosenhec@fas.harvard.edu.