Why Harvard Decision Is Risky

Harvard's decision to end early admissions has created an interesting dilemma—and a tempting opportunity—for its rival schools. Students admitted to Harvard as well as another school tend to choose Harvard in overwhelming numbers. This mismatch is particularly galling to its chief competitors, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford. Though I don't like to admit it as a Harvard graduate, these schools argue pretty convincingly that they do a better job of focusing on undergraduate education. But the Harvard brand remains powerful, and year after year, Harvard enjoys the highest yield of acceptances—about 80 percent, compared to 70 percent for the other three—and, nationwide, wins head-to-head competitions against each of the three other top-rated schools by comfortable margins.

Now Harvard's competitors have a chance to steal a march on their ancient foe. Standout high school students will be sorely tempted to apply early to, say, Yale, rather than wait to apply to Harvard. On Friday, the Harvard Crimson quoted a couple of students from Phillips Exeter Academy, a top prep school and longtime Harvard feeder, predicting that top students won't wait to be thrown into the general applicant pool ("wickedly competitive," says one student), but rather apply early to some other top school. In theory, a student could apply early to Yale under its non-binding "early action" program, and then also apply to Harvard for admission in April and choose between the two. In practice, most kids fall in love with the school that admits them first and don't want to spend their Christmas vacation filling out the applications to other schools.

It may be that Harvard has had its fill of obsessively over-achieving applicants (and their helicopter parents) and would prefer to take a larger number of kids who aren't quite so plugged into—and driven by—the get-in-early-or-die admissions rat race. That might even mean fewer neurotic students (according to the Crimson, about one-quarter of Harvard students are on some kind of medication). But it's likely that more stand-out students will go elsewhere.

All this is good news for Yale (and Princeton and Stanford and maybe a few others who snare away students from Harvard, like Dartmouth or Brown or Penn). But top administrators at Harvard's rivals are in a somewhat awkward position. Take Yale, which probably has the most to gain from Harvard's switch away from early admissions. Over a year ago, when complaints about the whole admissions game were growing into a steady roar, Yale President Richard C. Levin stated publicly that he would like to get rid of early admissions, if other schools did too. But when Harvard went first, Levin seemed to switch signals. He declared that it was not clear that eliminating early admissions would result in the admission of more low-income students, a prime reason given by Harvard for the switch. The Yale Daily News, the school paper, quoted "top Yale officials" as saying that "the University is satisfied with its current early action policy and does not anticipate any changes." Two days later, however, Levin said that Yale would review its policies after all.

What is going on here? It's doubtful that any administrator would put the issue quite so bluntly, but Yale and Princeton and all the other top schools are weighing general principles—the worthy goal of "advantaging the disadvantaged," as Harvard interim president Derek Bok put it—against the more expedient, but highly desirable goal of getting a competitive edge in the race for a large swathe of top students. Administrators at these highly-rated schools are generally a principled lot. Over the years, they have made their elitist schools much more diverse and even dared to anger their alumni (though legacies still get a break). Sometimes, the competitive urge can compel these schools to do the right thing. In the late '60s, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale engaged in soul-searching debates over coeducation. But the opposition to coeducation blew away once it became clear that any hold-out against coeducation would get clobbered in the admissions game by the schools that admitted women. In that case, expediency worked together with principle to produce change.

But in the case of early admissions, expediency—the desire to secure a competitive edge—cuts the other way. The school that stands pat, that preserves early admissions, will gain an advantage in the competition for the highly motivated, high scoring, highly recommended upper middle class kids who still heavily populate these schools, all efforts at diversity notwithstanding. Under pressure from within and without (academics tend to be liberals), Yale and the others may come around and get rid of early admissions. Still, Harvard is taking a risk. Its bold and noble move may turn out to be a lonely one.