Experts Unsure of Harvard's Return to Early Action Admissions

Harvard’s decision to bring back early action has received mixed reviews from admissions experts.

Some observers questioned what changes occurred in the last five years to cause the University to reverse its position on early action, which it once argued hurt underrepresented groups in the admissions process.

Harvard announced on Feb. 24 that non-binding early admission will return for the class of 2016. The College decided to eliminate the program five years ago in a move that administrators hailed as a progressive step to increased access to highly selective institutions for underrepresented groups.

At the time, proponents of the program’s elimination argued that more affluent students had better access to the resources needed to apply early.

“Early admission programs tend to advantage the advantaged,” then president Derek C. Bok said at the time. “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.”

Bok declined to comment for this article.

According to University President Drew G. Faust and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67, the circumstances have changed dramatically in the past four years.

“As we have transformed the pool and the class in recent years we have found that large numbers of our less advantaged students were also seeking the certainty of an early possibility,” Faust said in an interview last month. “One of the circumstances that has changed is the financial crisis... It’s made individuals want to understand fully and definitely what their choices are.”

Richard D. Kahlenberg ’85, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation who has been a critic of early admissions, said that Harvard’s arguments against early admission from five years ago are equally true today.

“Harvard did the right thing several years ago by trying to make the system more equitable and eliminating early action,” he said. “I’m not sure why that would change dramatically over the last few years.”

Kahlenberg said that he is yet to see any data to support the University’s claims.

Sandy Baum—a professor emeritus at Skidmore College who works as an analyst for the College Board—said that while she supports efforts to make admissions to highly selective institutions more open, she is less concerned about the return of early admission.

“It is certainly true that low income students are less like to apply early action or early decision than others,” said Baum. “That said, I don’t really believe early is the problem.”

Baum believes that the admissions process at highly selective institutions would benefit from a complete overhaul to make it less competitive.

The University said that in recent years its financial aid initiatives have encouraged low income applicants to consider Harvard, and argued that it did not believe re-introducing early action would diminish those efforts.

“There’s been a lot of effort to get the word out that there is financial aid and there’s been a lot of effort to get lower income students to think about elite colleges,” Baum said. “The test will be whether the representation of low income students will be higher than before.”

—Staff Writer Justin C. Worland can be reached at jworland@college.harvard.edu.

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