Early Admissions Makes a Comeback at Harvard, Princeton

Jay Willis

Harvard and Princeton made news this week when each school’s administrations announced a reinstating of an accelerated application process for incoming freshmen. Accelerated application programs can include binding early decision (ED) programs, like Columbia and Penn’s, which allow applicants to apply earlier in the application cycle on the conditions that they do not apply ED to any other school and that they attend the school if admitted.  Other schools, such as Stanford and Yale, use a similar procedure called non-binding early action (EA).  This program does not require students to attend if admitted, but also limits students’ ability to apply early to other schools (Stanford’s ban is total, while Yale’s allows for a few exceptions).

Schools have argued that early application procedures gave students that are confident of their first-choice school a chance to make their intentions known and to dispose with much of the stress of the college application process.  However, many commentators, most notably James Fallows in a 2001 Atlantic Monthly article , contended that such processes disadvantage financial needy students who might be averse to committing to a school without being able to compare financial aid offers from other schools.  As a corollary, critics argue that early applications assist wealthier students for whom maximizing financial aid is less important than attending their first-choice school.  Finally, early application programs increase the likelihood of acceptance; the benefit of applying early, in a study cited by Fallows, was equivalent to about 100 SAT points.  In sum: wealthier students are beneficiaries of a system that also made admission easier.

Largely in response to these criticisms, Harvard abolished its ED program in 2006.  Princeton and the University of Virginia quickly followed suit.  Virginia, however, reinstated an EA program last November, and Harvard and Princeton announced last week that they also would again install early application programs.  William Fitzsimmons, Dean of Admission at Harvard, explained that Harvard found that it was “missing out” on some of the “best-prepared low-income and underrepresented minority students” that were accepting early admission offers elsewhere.  In other words, abolition missed entirely the very groups of people it was intended to help.  Hoping this time around to avoid the same criticisms leveled at the old programs, both Harvard and Princeton have already taken an important step by announcing that they will institute only non-binding EA systems, not return to ED. Disadvantaged students will no longer have to fear missing out on financial aid elsewhere if they receive an early offer.

Going a step further, schools should also heavily publicize their new EA programs in disadvantaged schools to ensure that qualified students of all backgrounds are aware of them as they navigate the college admission process.  Admissions through the program must also be need-blind, and colleges should commit to matching the financial aid offers that students receive from peer schools during the regular application process. Finally, until schools are sure that disadvantaged or minority students are not significantly underrepresented in the EA pool, schools must rigorously uphold academic standards for early applicants.  Admissions officers should err on the side of viewing the applicant pool as a whole, and should defer all borderline applicants, regardless of socioeconomic status, to the regular admissions deadline.  If schools are committed to using more equitable early action programs, it is critical that they learn from past experiences and design them to allow disadvantaged applicants the same chance to benefit from the early admissions process.

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