Right This Way Please … Early Admissions Debate Rages On

In September 2006, Harvard made the decision to end early admissions. Early admissions takes on two forms: early action and early decision. What Harvard had in place was non-binding early action, meaning that a student applies before the regular deadline—in early November—and has until admissions decisions come back from other schools before deciding where to attend.

Early decision, on the other hand, is a binding option, where the process is the same as early action with one caveat—a person commits to attending the school if accepted. This means making a final decision on a school before receiving financial aid packages, and as John O. Harney argued in The New England Journal of Higher Education (then known as Connection): “no poor kid can make that kind of gamble.”

Indeed, the discussion surrounding both early action and early decision practices is not without controversy. Some argue that such practices give yet another college admissions advantage to students already imbued with social and cultural capital, that is, students who attend well-resourced high schools, have parents who attended college and so on. Applying early increases one’s likelihood of admissions, yet the typical college applicant may not even be cognizant of the option. In low-income communities with understaffed and underfunded high schools, college counselors have large caseloads and struggle to get through explaining the basic admissions and financial aid process to students, let alone the inner workings of early admissions.

It is not only overworked high school college counselors who say early admissions gives more affluent students another leg up in the application process; as a 2006 New York Times article quoted Harvard Dean of Admissions Bill Fitzsimmons: “There is no question about it: early admissions advantages the advantaged … It’s truly tilted.”

Tufts University President Lawrence S. Bacow wrote an article for Connection in 2006 stating that early admissions is an enrollment management tool used to fill slots with applicants most likely to matriculate, thereby increasing “yield percentage,” a number often considered when evaluating the quality of a school. Yet spaces are filled more often than not with full-pay students who do not apply for financial aid, and are thus less economically, geographically, racially and ethnically diverse than the regular applicant pool. Bacow noted that early admission disadvantages students, putting pressure on individuals to make premature decisions about schools due to the appeal of easier admissions and an earlier decision. Tufts continues to have an early decision (but no early action) option.

Of course, early admissions has its backers too. Washington Post education columnist Jay Matthews in a 2006 article commented that early admissions relieves student anxiety by getting the college application process over with before winter break and helps fill campuses with students who actually want to be there, consequently contributing positively to the overall ethos of the campus. He adds that instead of hurting low-income students from poorly resourced high schools, early admissions can actually help such students by encouraging them to stay on track and preventing college counselors from providing yet “one more excuse to let junior year slide by with little effort to help those students.”

But apparently Fitzsimmons and Harvard are singing that tune as well. Just yesterday, the Harvard Crimson announced that Harvard would bring back early action. According to the article, trends over the past few years have indicated that many talented students are choosing schools with early admissions programs. Michael D. Smith, dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, said these students include “some of the best-prepared low-income and underrepresented minority students.”

As often, when Harvard makes a move, others are quick to follow. When Harvard eliminated early action in 2006, Princeton and the University of Virginia announced their respective eliminations shortly after. Not surprisingly, the Crimson reported that on the same day as Harvard’s announcement to re-instate early action, Princeton followed suit.

It’s a good bet that other top-ranked schools also restore their early admissions programs over the next few weeks. And it will be interesting to see whether Harvard’s class of 2016 will have more or fewer lower-income and minority students, compared with the regular decision cohorts
that came before them.

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