Progress in Early Action

Harvard’s doing a good job playing a bad game

Last week brought good news for Harvard’s newly reinstated early action program. Compared with 2011, there was a 39 percent increase in requests for application fee waivers, suggesting an uptick in the amount of low- and middle-income applicants. What’s more, African-American early applicants were up 22 percent and Native Americans 24 percent from 2011. Considering that early action is often thought to favor students from privileged backgrounds who have the resources to get a head start on the college application process, the apparent increase in applicant diversity is a welcome development. Indeed, it is possible that with deliberate attention to recruiting early applicants from a diverse array of backgrounds, the College may be able to avoid one of the main pitfalls of an early admissions system.

Yet when the College discontinued the early action program in 2006, inequality was just one of two main concerns. The other was that an early admissions system, in the words of Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67, “subverts” the college admissions process, forcing students to try to gain an edge by applying early rather than thinking critically about which school is the best fit for them. Fitzsimmons even acknowledged the added pressure on students from elite public and private schools, who are deprived of several potentially important months of thought on where to apply.

But unfortunately, Harvard cannot continue as a regular action school in an early action world. Along with Princeton and the University of Virginia, Harvard had hoped that eliminating early action in 2006 would lead others to follow suit. Yet none did, and Harvard Admissions likely felt that they were losing some of the best candidates to places like Yale and Stanford, who kept their early programs.

In light of the current prevalence of early action, Harvard has no choice but to play along. But it’s clear enough that we’d all be better off if America’s top universities dropped the system altogether. It’s possible that concerns of inequality can be surmounted with a substantial dedication of resources to recruiting applicants from all rungs of the socio-economic ladder. Yet the distortion in student decision-making that occurs because of system is impossible to get around. It robs high school seniors of the freedom of choice that comes with not having to weigh concerns of early versus regular admissions when deciding which schools to apply to.

At the end of the day, we are more supportive of Harvard’s early action program than ever in light of the recent numbers. However, we acknowledge that applicants everywhere would be better off if we all just had until January to submit our applications.