(Early) Action Speaks Louder than Words

Harvard’s decision to reinstate early action is laudable—if done to increase campus diversity

Starting next fall, high school seniors will again have the opportunity to declare themselves to Harvard, early. Harvard announced that it would re-instate its non-binding, single-choice early action program last week, after having ended the program in 2007. In the 2005-2006 admissions cycle, 38 percent of the Class of 2010 was admitted under the program, which allowed students to apply by November 1st and be notified on Dec. 15 of admission, deferral (to the normal application pool), or rejection. On the same day Harvard made its announcement, Princeton revealed that it too would re-instate early action next year. With Harvard and Princeton both moving to restore early action, all eight Ivy League schools now have early admissions processes in place.

When Harvard decided to discontinue early admissions in 2006, the move was largely viewed as a step toward a fairer, more egalitarian admissions process. There was a general consensus among Harvard administrators that early admissions programs did more harm than good, in advantaging wealthier applicants who could accept admissions without considering competing financial aid packages and who had help putting together an application early in the school year. Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 stated that ending early admissions was “certainly a win for students in the bottom quarter and bottom half of the income distribution”.

Nevertheless, the College’s decision to reinstitute early action suggested that this experiment did not have the intended consequences. According to Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Michael D. Smith, many worthy applicants, “including some of the best-prepared low-income and underrepresented minority students”, were choosing to apply to schools with early action programs rather than considering Harvard. The decision to bring back early action was announced in tandem with a movement to intensify efforts to heighten interest in Harvard among underrepresented groups, through programs such as the Undergraduate Minority Recruitment Program and the “Return to High School Program.”

Our appraisal of early action’s return depends largely on the College’s motivations for the move. If the reinstitution of early action is, in fact, a sincere effort to open the admissions process to a more talented, socioeconomically diverse pool of applicants, then the College’s decision is justified. However, given the lack of transparency surrounding this monumental decision it is difficult to hold this position with certitude. The College declined to reveal any of the statistical evidence that informed its assessment, sharing only generalized conclusions it had drawn from examining admissions trends. In quoting the words of Professor of Public Policy Christopher N. Avery ’88 and Ramsey Professor of Political Economy Richard J. Zeckhauser ’62, we hope “this policy change is a selfless act, not some stratagem to outmaneuver its rivals.”

There is evidence to suggest both possibilities. Unlike binding early admissions, which requires applicants to commit to a school by an early deadline, early action gives lower-income applicants until the regular decision deadline to consider other institutions and financial aid packages. And all students benefit from the peace of mind that an early acceptance grants. Still, low-income students are often applying from public schools with overburdened guidance counselors and must deal with the admissions process largely on their own. These students must juggle academics, part-time jobs, and extracurricular activities, in addition to the labyrinthine bureaucracy of college admissions offices. While it is certainly possible that early action reinstitution will give equal benefit to applicants of all socioeconomic backgrounds, anecdotal evidence, and speculation provide too little basis to say whether this is probable.


Indeed, Harvard officials have given evidence that factors other than socioeconomic diversity were considered in the decision to reinstate early action. In a Crimson article, Dean Fitzsimmons said the decision was based partly on the trend of increased early admissions: “We started to hear that more and more people were applying early across the country”.

Data collected by The New York Times on early admissions rates this year supports this claim: It reveals an 8.25 percent increase in applications to Columbia’s early decision program and a 6.54 percent increase in applicants to Stanford’s single-choice early action program, in 2011. Guidance counselors interviewed by both The Crimson and the Yale Daily News were skeptical that the intention behind this change was to draw in greater diversity. “They’re enormously competitive”, Jon Reider, a former Stanford admissions officer and current director of college counseling at San Francisco University High School, told the YDN, adding that Stanford’s decision to instate early action was an attempt “to fight for more kids”.

While re-instating early action to again level the playing field and is laudable, re-instating early action because peer institutions have not followed Harvard’s lead is distasteful for an institution that aspires to hold its admissions policy to higher, long-term standards of social equality. That the College has declined to release information to back its decision creates unnecessary suspicion that could easily be dispelled. We commend initiatives, such as increasing recruitment programs, that link definitive motivation with definitive action and allow for transparency in the system. The College should apply these same principles to all its admission decisions.

In light of the sizeable impact this decision will have on the future of the College community, we call upon the admissions office to release data on the “trends” that led them to reinstate early action. Considering the extent to which the College stressed the positive consequences that would come with ending early admissions, there should be a similar movement to explain the rationale for overturning this decision just four years later.

All undergraduates have significant stake in the future content of our community and the reputation of this institution. As invested stakeholders, we deserve to know the factors that go into deciding major institutional changes. Without having greater transparency into the motivations of the College’s decision, there is no way we can definitively support their actions.

CORRECTION: March 1, 2010

Due to an editing error, the online version of the Mar. 1 staff editorial incorrectly read  "college seniors will again have the opportunity to declare themselves to Harvard, early." The correct group is "high school seniors." The original print version of this editorial reflects this change.