No Surprises

Steep drop in early applicants is logical result of suffocating admissions policy change

The first round of early application numbers at the College is in. They’re dramatic—applications for the Class of 2008 fell a staggering 47 percent from last year’s record high—but no one in undergraduate admissions’ Garden Street offices seems concerned about the drastic decrease in students seeking early spots at Harvard. Why such calmness in the face of such a fall? Isn’t anyone worried that interest in Harvard has waned? The answer to the apparent paradox is that Byerly Hall’s administrators can hardly be surprised by the decline: After all, they engineered it themselves with a needlessly restrictive change in policy last April.

Beginning with the potential members of the Class of 2004, applicants to Harvard’s non-binding early action program could simultaneously apply to similar programs at other schools. The policy was in many ways ideal: by letting prospective students apply elsewhere at the same time, Harvard gave them the maximum in flexibility. For the Class of 2007, Harvard made the admittedly questionable move of opening its early application process even further, allowing early applicants to simultaneously apply to another school’s binding early decision program. In addition to various ethical concerns, this newly liberal policy produced an unmanageable spike in early applicants. But in undoing that mistake this spring, the admissions office also managed to undo one of the most valuable features of Harvard’s application policy. Unlike all early applicants since the fall of 1999, those applying for spots in the Class of 2008 were prohibited from applying to any other non-binding programs.

Early action is preferable to early decision precisely because it does not force applicants to make the weighty decision about which college to attend before the spring. It succeeds by affording applicants more options and more time to maneuver within the high-stakes admissions game. April’s change did just the opposite: though they were not locked into attending Harvard, this year’s early applicants were cut off from the important option of applying to other commitment-free programs in the winter. This was a particularly significant change for lower-income applicants, who lose more than three months of playing multiple schools’ tentative financial packages off one another. A full season of critical negotiation over tuition for Harvard applicants has been replaced with what will be a single frenzied month in mid-Spring. And so, faced with a requirement to choose Harvard in November and put off all other applications until the January regular-action process, prospective students who did not already have their minds made up pulled back—producing this year’s precipitous fall in early applications.

The admissions office openly admits that the sudden drop is a result of April’s change; but they would have us believe that the policy shift somehow made the college admissions circus more relaxed and more easily-navigable for early applicants. Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 wasted no time in lauding the new policy’s results as “a return to an era in which people will be much more thoughtful about what they are doing early.”

This logic is just as flawed as it was eight months ago. Reducing the number of options available to students does nothing to encourage careful reflection. On the contrary, it forces students to make a premature choice, though not a binding one, about whether Harvard is the single school they want to cast their lot with. Fitzsimmons can throw all the stones he likes at the straw-man “rush judgment” that he seems to think has been suppressed by the new policy, but the fact remains that the new policy has increased the pressure for a hurried decision, not lessened it.

Given these facts, this month’s figures should come as no shock. They stand as an entirely expected, but no less dismaying, testament to the unduly narrow policy imposed on this year’s early applicants by the admissions office. With any luck, that office will be able to see beyond the superficial benefit in a reduced load of paperwork and open Harvard once again to the fullest range of potential students.