Early Decision Policy Clarified

Harvard issues statement saying it will uphold admissions status quo

After weeks of speculation that Harvard would allow students who had been accepted under binding Early Decision programs at other colleges to enroll at Harvard, the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid released a statement last week saying Harvard will honor the Early Decision system.

“It is our expectation that students admitted elsewhere under binding Early Decision will honor their previous commitment and not matriculate at Harvard,” the statement said.

While the statement “recommends” applying to Harvard under Regular Action “for students who are applying already to a binding Early Decision college and must withdraw from Harvard [and all other colleges] once admitted,” it did not make clear how the College would treat students who tried to break binding early commitments and attend Harvard.

But Director of Admissions Marlyn McGrath Lewis ’70-’73 said that if such a case arose, Harvard would “certainly consider rescinding their admission” and “will not allow the student to enroll.”

The policy does not represent a departure from past practice, as the National Association of College Admissions Counselors voted last fall to allow high school students to apply to both an Early Decision and an Early Action school with the caveat that the Early Decision application “supersedes” all others. McGrath Lewis said she does not “think there was any support for [the] idea” of permitting students accepted under Early Decision elsewhere to enroll.

But last month, two members of the Standing Committee on Admissions and Financial Aid said that Harvard was strongly considering allowing students accepted under Early Decision elsewhere to enroll and that the idea had wide support among faculty.

Rotch Professor of Atmospheric and Environmental Science Steven C. Wofsy, a member of the committee, said at the time that he did not believe the College would recognize other schools’ Early Decision programs as overriding Harvard’s right to enroll a student.

“As far as I know, that honoring procedure is out the window for next year,” Wofsy said. McGrath Lewis declined comment on June 6.

Besides the advantage of enabling the College to enroll any student it wanted, the proposed new policy also would have shielded Harvard from the potential claim that it was violating antitrust law in enforcing the contracts of other colleges by preventing students who had made other commitments from attending the College.

But McGrath Lewis said Harvard would deny admission to candidates accepted under other colleges’ Early Decision programs not because another school was requiring them to attend but because the attempted breach of contract demonstrated dishonesty on their part.

“If we admitted someone and then found out they murdered someone, we probably would rethink that case as well,” she said. “It is not proper for us to be enforcing or policing other institutions’ rules, but we are very concerned about the ethical behavior of students who might be Harvard students.”

Had Harvard decided to break with the status quo, it would have had dire implications for the Early Decision system, which benefits schools who are guaranteed that they were the first choice of a substantial percentage of their applicants and thus have higher yields than they otherwise would.

If they could no longer be certain that students they accepted early would attend, they would have to accept and waitlist more students under regular decision.

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