While many educators fretted over Harvard's announcement last week that it was rescinding its Early Admissions policy, Azusa Pacific University stood firm. It will not end Early Action. But wait. The small Christian college near Los Angeles let in 2,300 of 3,100 freshman applicants for this fall. That's a 74 percent acceptance rate. Why does it even need Early Action to attract applicants? "Students kept asking us if we had Early Action," says Deana Porterfield, vice president for enrollment management. When the school finally enacted the policy in 2001, the number of applications jumped 13 percent.
The big question now is whether Harvard's unique position as arguably the most prestigious brand in American higher education could make getting in early seem as obsolete as a 2005 iPod. Starting in 2007, applicants to Harvard will no longer receive a slight edge by ranking the college as their No. 1 choice and mailing their applications before the regular deadline. Of all the students Harvard accepted last year, 38 percent were admitted early. "I think the broader impact depends an awful lot on what other schools do," says Derek Bok, Harvard's interim president. "By ourselves we can only have a limited effect." Other top-tier schools such as Princeton, Yale and Caltech say they'll also consider a change. But below that elite level, Early Admission still has diehard supporters. Most of the nearly 400 schools with early policies enacted them for a very different reason than Harvard did: recruiting. It's a way to lock students up early and fill classes. They're much less likely to follow Harvard's lead. "Other schools can't afford to give up the cream-of-the-crop kids," says Joyce Smith, executive director of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.
Critics say Early Admission policies at elite schools tend to favor affluent students who don't need to weigh financial-aid offers. Early Decision requires that students make a binding commitment to a school. Early Action is more forgiving; you can commit later. Still, Harvard's dean of admissions, William Fitzsimmons, thinks it's fairer if everyone is admitted at once. "A lot of students, because of a lack of counseling, would miss out entirely on early programs," says Fitzsimmons, who began to lobby in July for an end to the policy. "Then they'd be sitting there in December, saying, 'Oh, my gosh, I missed out on this elite, white, Early Admission club. Why should I even bother?' "
But not all students aspire to the elite, and it's appealing to end anxiety early. "They do it to simply get the process over with," says Ric Martinez, director of admissions at the College of Wooster in Ohio, which offers Early Decision. Schools, of course, are happy to oblige because not only do early policies increase their yield (the percentage of students who enroll after they're admitted), but front-loading also helps spread out the workload of admissions staff. "We're not in a position of making changes now," says Zina Evans, director of admissions at the University of Florida, which received 4,277 Early Decision applications last year. Among high schoolers, there are still plenty of takers. "Ever since I was 2, I've been coming here for football games," says Stuart Marth, a freshman at the University of Virginia who applied early. For now, at least, Harvard's move hasn't canceled the early show.