Will Others Follow Harvard?

Cutting against a major trend in the college-admissions game, Harvard grabbed national headlines Tuesday by announcing it would eliminate its early-admissions program—big news from a school that fills two fifths of its class with early applicants. The decision sent ripples through the world of higher education, which over the last decade has seen an explosion in the popularity of early admissions. While some predicted an ensuing domino effect at other schools, a number of analysts aren’t so sure.

A spokesperson for Princeton says the news will be a factor at the school’s next review process and adds that Princeton “could be comfortable in making a change.” Yale President Richard Levin says his institution would take a wait-and-see approach while continuing pre-existing efforts to attract low-income candidates. Lloyd Thacker, who three years ago founded the Education Conservancy, a nonprofit that advocates for college-admissions reform, believes a slew of other schools could follow Harvard’s lead. “Many other colleges have been concerned with this,” says Thacker. “Everybody looks up to Harvard, and if they can do such a bold thing, why can’t others?”

Harvard’s logic was egalitarian enough. Derek Bok, the school’s interim president, cited fairness and simplicity as the primary reasons for the change, saying in a statement that early-admission programs tend to add stress to an already stressful process and “advantage the advantaged.” Though Harvard says there is no strategic benefit to applying early, the school accepted 21 percent of early applicants this past year, compared to just 9 percent of regular-admission candidates. This rate is similar to many of America’s top colleges and universities, fueling concern that early admissions favor the most privileged students, particularly those from affluent high schools that place a high emphasis on college counseling. “Early-admission programs attract a less-representative applicant pool; it’s more upper middle class and beyond,” says Richard Shaw, dean of admissions at Stanford, which is considering whether or not it will react to Harvard’s announcement.

But Christopher Avery, a Harvard professor who coauthored “The Early Admission Game: Joining the Elite” (Harvard University Press), says there are incentives against schools scrapping early admissions. “It’s hard to see what Harvard gains by this,” says Avery, who thinks Harvard’s move was “selfless,” an attempt to put “out an even clearer message that it’s eager to attract students from low-income backgrounds.” But Avery points out that Harvard is in a privileged position. In the fiercely competitive world of higher education, where schools have strong financial incentives to attract accomplished student bodies, Avery says it’s tough to say whether many other schools will take the risk of giving up a good way of locking in top students.

Further complicating the prospect of quick change is the fact that not all early-admissions programs are created equal. Schools with binding “early decision” (in which students must commit to attend the college they apply to if they are accepted) are considered to be less likely to abandon their programs than schools like Harvard, which feature nonbinding “early action.” A host of top schools, including Princeton and Cornell, have early-decision programs, which allow them to lock in a significant percentage of their class early on. Yet some, including Bok, consider early decision particularly pernicious. “Students needing financial aid are disadvantaged by binding early-decision programs that prevent them from comparing aid packages,” he says. According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, nearly 400 colleges have early admissions, the majority of which require binding commitments from applicants.

These are not large numbers in the scheme of American higher education—there are more than 2,500 four-year, degree-granting colleges and universities in the United States—and experts say it would be easy to read too much into a decision that will only affect a tiny percentage of the millions of American teenagers who apply to college each year. Fewer than 23,000 students applied to Harvard last year, of which fewer than 4,000 apply early—and only about 800 of these are accepted. Even if a handful of other schools revise their admissions policies to match Harvard’s, the number of students affected will remain quite small, in a national context. Nor will the move do away with other sorts of favoritism in the admissions game. “It’s a very small step in the right direction, but it’s not a watershed event,” said Daniel Golden, whose new book, “The Price of Admission” (Crown), argues that the sons and daughters of America’s upper class are often accepted into elite schools over more qualified students. “Right now a very large percentage of alumni and donor children do early decision. All this [change] means is that instead of getting their acceptance letters over Thanksgiving, they’ll get them over Easter.”