Early Inaction

College v. Country

Now we know what keeps Harvard admissions officers awake at night. It isn't the threat of nuclear proliferation, the fate of Palestine, whether the Sox can assemble a bullpen this year, or even whether Brad will choose Chantal over Emily. No. It's the fear that somewhere in America, a teenager is making a life-altering decision. Trapped in an unfair system and swayed by one-sided information, they commit a critical and permanent error. They choose to attend Yale.

With the threat of this kind of calamity stalking the land, it's no surprise that Harvard recently announced the return of early admissions. Five years ago, Dean of Admissions William R. Fitzsimmons `67 boasted in The Crimson that canceling Early Action provided "a win for students in the bottom quarter and bottom half of the income distribution." And yet, five years later, Harvard has decided to abandon the bottom half of the income distribution to rejoin the group of elite institutions participating in a zero-sum competition over the strongest members of the existing application pool. Unfortunately, while Early Action is good for Harvard, it's bad for America.

When Harvard ended early admissions five years ago the stated goal was the opportunity to reach out to students that might not apply to Harvard or any other selective institution. The single application deadline gave admissions officers more time to tour high schools in the fall, correcting common misconceptions, touting our generous financial aid packages, and encouraging qualified students to apply.

Now we are restarting early admissions, but none of the offered explanations address the original goal. When Dean Fitzsimmons states—as he did recently in The Crimson—that "we started to hear that more and more people were applying early across the country" and points to rising interest in early admissions programs as a reason for the change, my response is: So what? What does interest in early admissions programs have to do with the diversity of the overall applicant pool? And when Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Michael D. Smith's statement says "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", my response is again: So what? If anything, increasing numbers of low-income and underrepresented students in the applicant pool might indicate our outreach efforts are working!

In a way this evasiveness is not surprising, because while operating an Early Action program drains resources from efforts at broadening our applicant pool, it does achieve several things: It helps Harvard compete for students already in the applicant pool, and boosts our all-important yield. But ignore the warriors in the Harvard v. Yale admissions wars that nobody outside our ivory towers cares about for a minute and ask the question: Do yield and the competition over over-prepared students matter?

Not to me. Despite Admissions Office fears, my reaction to the nightmare scenario in which a student chooses Yale over Harvard because of early admissions is simple and familiar: So what? Yale is a great school. The student will likely succeed there, and I'm guessing we will be able to find someone out of our thousands of qualified applicants willing to give Harvard a shot. How is this a bad outcome? The education we are providing is not so superior to what students at Yale or Princeton receive, and if it were we would worry even less about the quality of admits, confident that by graduation we would have transformed them into those peerless creatures: Harvard Women and Men.

Unless you work in the Admissions Office or care about the inane U.S. News college rankings, how well-qualified students sort out between Ivy League schools doesn't generate nightmares or even a second thought. Here's the nightmare scenario that keeps me awake. Consumed by competing over applicants that would have applied anyway, Harvard and other peer institutions abandon outreach efforts. Meanwhile, a qualified, lower-income student considers her application. She's heard that Harvard is expensive. Her peers that have been admitted are all wealthy. Discouraged, she pushes the application aside. Harvard can never admit a student that doesn't apply.

Geoffrey W. Challen '02­–'03 is a Resident Tutor at Eliot House. The views expressed are his and do not reflect official Harvard College policy.

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