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.