New Possibilities in the Post-Early Admissions Era

Eliminating early admission is a significant step in reforming a college admissions process that has spun out of control in recent years. It also creates new possibilities for reaching out to promising students who might not otherwise consider Harvard.

This favorable situation led Harvard last fall to eliminate its early admission program and move to a single application deadline of January 1. The change, which builds on Harvard’s efforts over the past several years to expand financial aid and increase openness in admissions, takes effect for students applying this fall.

Since we proposed eliminating early admission to interim University President Derek C. Bok and interim Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles, their support has been enthusiastic and unwavering. Their remarks when the announcement was made are indicative of Harvard’s institutional priorities. As Bok said, “The college admissions process has become too pressured, too complex, and too vulnerable to public cynicism. We hope that doing away with early admission will improve the process and make it simpler and fairer.”

“Early admission programs tend to advantage the advantaged,” Bok continued. “Students from more sophisticated backgrounds and affluent high schools often apply early to increase their chances of admission, while minority students and students from rural areas, other countries, and high schools with fewer resources miss out. Students needing financial aid are disadvantaged by binding early decision programs that prevent them from comparing aid packages. Others who apply early and gain admission to the college of their choice have less reason to work hard at their studies during their final year of high school.”

Knowles articulated the educational benefits to high school students: “These programs distort the high school experience by forcing both students and colleges to commit prematurely, based only upon the record at the end of the student’s junior year. Moreover, students who are admitted early receive what often appears to be a ‘free pass’ for their second semester, sadly encouraging them to disengage from their academic experience. I hope that our decision to eliminate early action will help to turn down the heat on admissions, allowing students, parents, and teachers to continue to focus their energies on the joys and rigors of education itself.”

The public reaction to this announcement has far exceeded our expectations. Numerous editorials and articles in publications in America and abroad have supported Harvard’s decision. So, too, have secondary school principals and counselors, as well as other informed observers. Many hope, as we do, that this change will help restore some sanity to a process that seems more pressured—and less consonant with fundamental educational values—with each passing year.

From our perspective, eliminating early admission will also allow us to expand our search for the most talented students, particularly in out-of-the-way places. Prior to the expansion of early admission, November and December, the two months we formerly devoted to early admission, were among the most productive recruiting periods of the entire year both domestically and internationally. We will be aided in our new outreach program by ground-breaking research by Freed Professor of Economics Caroline M. Hoxby ’88 and Larsen Professor of Public Policy Christopher N. Avery ’88, which will allow us to identify unusually promising students from communities that rarely or never send applicants to the College or its peer institutions.

Since our announcement, Princeton and the University of Virginia have also eliminated their early admission programs. We immediately contacted them to see if they might wish to join us for recruiting activities in November and December. Both schools have enthusiastically agreed, and we believe that our combined efforts—which mirror our current spring and early fall joint travel trips to 120 cities along with Duke, Georgetown, the University of Pennsylvania, and Stanford—will enable us to attract an even better and more diverse pool of applicants.

Harvard will also work with secondary schools in a renewed effort to make applying to college less complicated and stressful than it is today. This effort is particularly important in light of disparities in access to college counseling. The average ratio of students to college counselors in the United States is 500 to one—in California the ratio is as high as 1,000 to one—and many high schools in the increasing number of communities that are facing severe economic challenges have eliminated college counseling altogether. We expect that the move away from early admission will assist counselors in sharpening the focus of the admissions process on its most important goal—helping all students find the right match regardless of their family’s financial circumstances.

We will continue to address the issue of college admissions reform. As the first of our peer institutions to adopt the Common Application, we have tried to make the application process itself less cumbersome. And in a paper first written in 2000 and recently revised, “Time Out or Burn Out for the Next Generation” (which can be found at http://www. admissions.college.harvard.edu/prospective/applying/time_off/index.html), we have expressed our concern about the increasing danger of “burnout” for many students. We hope the end of early admission will be of some help in this regard.

We recognize that there are risks in eliminating early admission. It is possible, particularly in the short run, that we could see somewhat fewer applicants because some might not want to wait, opting instead for a binding early decision program elsewhere. And some may be admitted to a non-binding early action program and become convinced they wish to attend their “early” college despite being admitted later to Harvard, reducing our yield.

Yet our hope is that the very best applicants—the ones we seek most assiduously—will appreciate the principled stand we—along with Princeton and the University of Virginia—have taken and will resist the pressure to commit to a college before they are fully ready. Historically such outstanding students have exhibited a level of confidence, maturity, and thoughtfulness that separates them from others who may approach the college admissions process more from a game-theoretic point of view.

Regardless of the risks of giving up early admission, we are confident we are doing the right thing in placing the highest priority on the welfare of students. We hope that ending early admission sends a clear message to a highly-stressed generation that it is smart and sensible to slow down and consider carefully what is best for them in the long run—regardless of pressure by colleges, parents, or peers.

William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 is dean of admissions and financial aid. Sarah C. Donahue is director of financial aid. Marlyn McGrath Lewis ’70-’73 is director of admissions.