Opening the Gates

Despite setbacks, the University seeks broader change through admissions policy

Harvard admissions officers bear a weighty responsibility—they must sift through tens of thousands of applicants and select the chosen few who will be welcomed into the 375-year-old Harvard community.

Some view the Admissions Office’s decisions with cynicism, accusing Harvard of actively working to inflate the number of students who apply and of failing to enroll the nation’s poorest students.

Others see Harvard as a leader and innovator working to diversify its applicant pool by intensifying its effort to reach out to disadvantaged high school students.

After a four-year absence, administrators announced this year the return of early admission—a program thought by some to diminish college access for lower-income students. The decision, which shook the admissions world, represents a dramatic shift in policy and offers a window into Harvard administrators’ decision-making processes.

The 2006 decision to end early action—like the move to drastically increase Harvard’s financial aid in 2004 and other initiatives before it—was meant to improve the accessibility of Harvard College for disadvantaged students.


But while Harvard administrators hoped these decisions would help to improve the College, they also meant for their efforts to pressure other universities to diversify their student bodies as well.


Five years ago Harvard announced that it would eliminate its early admission option, claiming that students of lower socioeconomic status often did not have the resources or knowledge to file an application early.

“Early admission programs tend to advantage the advantaged,” then-interim University 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.”

But this February, the University shifted direction. The previous concerns, officials argued, had been mitigated by recruiting efforts and the strength of the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative, a landmark merit-based aid offering.

Furthermore, some low-income students desired the certainty of a decision early in the process, since many universities retained their early programs, Harvard officials argue.

Some admissions experts said that Harvard was correct to eliminate its early action program.

“Harvard did the right thing several years ago by trying to make the system more equitable and eliminating early action,” said Richard D. Kahlenberg ’85, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation.

“I’m not sure why that would change dramatically over the last few years.”

Others are less certain that bringing back early admission will have a negative impact on the number of students Harvard accepts from underrepresented backgrounds.