Citing Inequality, College Ends Early Action

In a move unprecedented among the nation’s top private schools, Harvard College will scrap its early admission program next fall and put all its applicants on a single deadline, University officials said Monday.

The announcement marks an end to the College’s longstanding policy of allowing students to apply to Harvard twice—first in a smaller round during the late fall, and then in a much larger round several weeks later.

Interim President Derek C. Bok said that he and the six fellows of the Harvard Corporation, who approved the change Monday morning, had concluded in recent months that “somebody had to take the lead” in eliminating early admission.

“We feel that if anybody is going to step up and take the lead to try to get rid of something which is really doing more harm than good in high schools across the country, it’s us,” Bok said.

The Corporation, which serves as the University’s executive board, decided to drop the program in large part because of concerns that early admission provides an unfair advantage to applicants from privileged backgrounds, Bok and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 said in a joint interview Monday.

Jettisoning early admission, Fitzsimmons said, is “certainly a win for students in the bottom quarter and bottom half of the income distribution.” Students from more affluent families often apply early to express special interest in a particular school, while students from lower socioeconomic levels frequently hold off for the regular admissions process in order to compare colleges’ financial aid offers.

Harvard’s early admission program—known as “early action”—is non-binding, allowing accepted applicants to wait until May 1 to notify the College whether they will attend. But less privileged students sometimes fail to distinguish between Harvard’s program and binding “early decision” programs offered at other schools. In other instances, students do not apply early because they are not well advised about the logistics of preparing to apply early.

Fitzsimmons added that early admission sometimes “subverts” the college admissions process, as seniors may feel compelled to apply early in hopes of gaining an edge over applicants in the regular pool.

“We keep hearing that the frenzy and pressure at elite public and private high schools has really ramped up in the past two or three years,” Fitzsimmons said. “We think it’s healthy for students to have that entire senior year to think about what school is the best fit for them.”

Harvard officials adamantly deny that early applicants face less-stringent admissions criteria than their regular-decision counterparts. “There is no strategic advantage to applying to Harvard Early Action,” according to the College Admissions Office website. But Harvard’s acceptance rate in the early round last fall was 21.0 percent—in contrast to a 9.3 percent acceptance rate overall, according to figures from the College.

Early-action admits composed nearly two-fifths of all students accepted to the Class of 2010.

Two Harvard professors who co-authored “The Early Admissions Game: Joining the Elite” wrote in an e-mail that they were “quite surprised” at Harvard’s decision.

“Harvard has benefited greatly over the years from its early admissions policies,” Larsen Professor of Public Policy Christopher N. Avery ’88 and Ramsey Professor of Political Economy Richard J. Zeckhauser ’62 wrote. “This strongly suggests that this policy change is a selfless act, not some stratagem to outmaneuver its rivals.”



A ‘GUTSY MOVE’

Shelving early admission is a bold move for Harvard. Students eager to gain admission to college could potentially apply early to other leading schools instead of waiting for Harvard’s later, unitary deadline. If other top colleges don’t follow Harvard’s lead, some high school seniors may opt for earlier notification elsewhere over a Crimson diploma.

“Harvard would feel quite uncomfortable if its approach to the admissions game led it to lose top students, and that is a real possibility,” Avery and Zeckhauser wrote.

Bok, however, said that Harvard—which habitually ranks among the most selective colleges in the nation—“can absorb that risk more easily than other schools.”

And Harvard’s move comes with a potential escape-clause. The switch to a single-decision system would last for a “a two- to three-year trial period.” Harvard will “monitor the impact of this change and make sure that it does not have a negative impact on student quality,” University officials said in a press release.

The appeal of a Harvard degree could be strong enough to preclude any significant change in the school’s admitted applicant pool, said Alexandra Robbins, author of “The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids.”

“There will always be more qualified students who want to go to Harvard than Harvard can admit,” Robbins said.

Bok said that he hopes that other schools will follow suit and drop their early admission programs, but it is not yet clear whether Harvard will set the pace for its peers.

“The old adage is, ‘When Harvard sneezes, everyone else gets pneumonia,’” said Bruce Breimer, school principal and director of college relations at the Collegiate School in New York. “It’s going to cause everyone else to re-evaluate.”

But Stanford’s dean of admissions and financial aid, Richard H. Shaw, said Monday that many colleges could be hesitant to follow in Harvard’s footsteps.

“I applaud them for this—that’s a pretty gutsy move,” said Shaw, who previously served as Yale’s admissions chief. “But it’s possible that only Harvard could do it. A lot of other institutions would really have to be considerate about a change like this, since they don’t quite have the attraction that Harvard does.”

When Yale adopted a nonbinding early admission policy in