In a reversal of a bold policy that College administrators once touted as a boon for lower-income students, Harvard and Princeton University both announced yesterday that they will resume the early admissions program for students applying this fall.
Concerned that such programs disadvantaged applicants from underprivileged backgrounds, Harvard—followed by the University of Virginia and Princeton—eliminated early admissions starting for the Class of 2012.
When Harvard announced in 2006 that it would suspend its early admissions program, the University sent shock waves through higher education, and the move was seen as a step forward for increasing access to education.
But in recent months, Harvard administrators have come to reconsider the policy amid concerns that the College may be missing some of the country’s most talented applicants.
“We looked carefully at trends in Harvard admissions these past years and saw that many highly talented students, including some of the best-prepared low-income and underrepresented minority students, were choosing programs with an early-action option, and therefore were missing out on the opportunity to consider Harvard,” Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Michael D. Smith said in a statement.
Beginning with students applying for the classes of 2016, Harvard and Princeton will both offer a single-choice early action application option. While this practice does not require admitted students to attend, it does prohibit students from applying to other schools’ early action or early decision programs.
But experts said that yesterday’s decision—an abrupt departure from the policy of the past four years—will dramatically alter the college admissions landscape for students seeking spots at highly selective universities.
Experts also question what has changed over the past four years to justify the policy’s return. Early admissions programs have in the past been considered beneficial for traditionally advantaged groups in the college admissions process—such as athletes, legacies, and the children of donors—but it remains unclear whether the return of early admissions will have negative repercussions for lower-income students.
Even as he was singing the praises of a single admissions cycle five years ago, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 said that the College might reevaluate its decision within a few years.
“If after several years with a single admissions deadline, we find ourselves needing to reinstate early admission to preserve the quality of our student body, we will return to early action,” he said in the 2006 statement which initially heralded the end of early action.
Describing the elimination as “an experiment” earlier this month, Fitzsimmons reiterated the fact that the decision was always open to review.
Fitzsimmons said that Harvard began seriously considering reinstating early action this past summer. After months of review, the Office of Admissions decided that the upswing in students applying to early programs across the country, as well as students’ desire to gain entry to Harvard earlier in the year, showed a need to resume early admissions at the College.
“We started to hear that more and more people were applying early across the country,” Fitzsimmons said. “Given the uncertainty that an economic downturn entails—people look for the certainty that early admission would provide.” He added that students are especially keen to secure speedy admission to a school with generous financial aid like Harvard.
Fitzsimmons pointed to rising numbers of early applications nationwide as evidence that early action programs have now become available to a larger pool of students than in 2006, when the College did away with the program.