Harvard to Drop Early Admissions

By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Harvard College announced yesterday that it will end its early-admissions program, which allowed some students to find out whether they had been accepted months before other applicants, saying it wants to minimize what has become a high-pressure process for some high-schoolers and "level the playing field" for low-income applicants who might be left out of the program.

Early admissions have become a focus of many competitive high school students seeking their top choices among the nation's most selective universities and colleges. In exchange for early admissions news, students agree to commit to the school and usually must reject other schools. Harvard, which did not require such a commitment, urged other schools to follow its lead.

William R. Fitzsimmons, Harvard College's longtime dean of admissions and financial aid, said in an interview that, for a number of years, the school has heard from parents and high school teachers that "the admissions frenzy was ruining the experience for juniors and seniors -- what was being taken away from them was tragic."

Harvard's decision, however, was met with skepticism by many schools, where admissions officers said they do not plan to end their early-admissions programs.

"It's an act of moral leadership on the part of an institution that can afford it," said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. "For the second- and third-tier institutions, early admissions is a very effective enrollment tool. They rely on it to solidify their incoming classes."

Fitzsimmons said the early-admissions applicant pool has historically been dominated by affluent whites who know how to play the intricate system of getting into a top school. Last year, Harvard accepted about a third of its class from the early-admissions pool. Fitzsimmons said that, by going to a single January deadline next year for the first time in 30 years, the school hopes to recruit a fresh pool of students nationally who might not ordinarily apply.

Critics of early-admissions policies have for years complained that the programs skew a system that has increasingly favored the upper class and the affluent. The programs became particularly popular in the past decade as students figured out that their chances of acceptance often increased if they applied early. With many schools accepting a large percentage of early-admissions applicants, the process has evolved into a strategic way to gain a competitive edge.

But administrators have often complained that the early application deadlines have consumed students far too early and have offered far too many, confusing levels of applications.

Although some schools require a "binding" application -- meaning that if a student is accepted, that constitutes a contract to attend -- others merely offer an "early action," in which the student is accepted but not committed.

Yesterday, some school admissions officers praised Harvard for being the first of the elite schools to address the concerns, but they also noted that Harvard's prestige gives it the freedom to make the change without affecting the quality of its applicant pool. For many of the smaller, selective schools aggressively competing for the same students, an early-admissions program is an economic security blanket, and it gives them a chance to nail down at least a portion of their freshman enrollment as they continue to recruit other good students.

"This probably will not impact Harvard's ability to enroll their most desired students. It would be a very different matter if this bold move was taken by schools that sit just outside the Ivy League," said Karen Giannino, Colgate University's senior associate dean of admission. "We see early decision as a still important opportunity for students to express their strongest desire to be a member of our community."

Charles Deacon, dean of undergraduate admissions at Georgetown University, said the Jesuit school will not do what Harvard has done because it depends on early admissions to secure commitments from some of the top students in the country. "I agree in principle with what they are doing, but it seems they could have taken some intermediate steps first. Why do they have to take such a large number from the early pool?" he said. "We take an equal percentage from both pools."

Gail Berson, vice president and dean of admissions at Wheaton College in Massachusetts, said Wheaton sees early admissions as an "important option to protect students who know their first choice."

"I think we need to look at the decision in context of all colleges and universities," Debra D. Shaver, admissions director at Smith College, said in an e-mail in response to questions for this article. "While it's an important step for an institution like Harvard, there are many colleges that have not been contributing to the frenzy of the admission process by using early decision. . . . We will continue to offer the early decision option."

Lee Stetson, dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, said in a statement that the school "has no plans, at present, to change its early-admissions policy." He added: "The early-admissions process, which we have had for some 40 years, has been very successful for us and for our students."

Many administrators agreed yesterday that, at a minimum, Harvard's decision will open up a fresh round of discussion on a wildly competitive admissions process that has consumed schools for years. "Change is good," said John A. Blackburn, dean of admissions at the University of Virginia, a state school with a large out-of-state competitive applicant pool. "I think what most of us are seeing is that low-income students do not apply to early programs. I suspect that Harvard's decision will eventually say to other schools, 'Maybe we'll try it, too.' "

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