Is Early Admissions a Good Idea?

Harvard recently said it is ending its early-admissions program next year.
Harvard recently said it is ending its early-admissions program next year. (By Neal Hamberg -- Bloomberg News)
By Jay Mathews
Thursday, September 21, 2006

Dear Extra Credit readers:

This column runs in The Washington Post's Extras in Fairfax and Montgomery counties. These two school districts probably have more students and parents closely watching developments in college admissions than any other place in the country. It is not news to them that Harvard University has announced it will defy fashion and stop using the early-admissions system that has become so popular with other selective colleges. But while the admissions world is absorbing this news, I would like local experts to help me figure out if what Harvard is doing is a good idea.

There are two principal forms of early admission. One is Early Decision (ED). The applicant applies in early November and promises to attend that college if accepted in December. The other approach is Early Action (EA), which is the same except the applicant who has been accepted is not committed to attend that school and can wait until April to see if other schools are interested.

Harvard has never used ED, although most of the other Ivy League colleges and many other selective schools do. Harvard is ending its EA program so its applicants will have to apply by Jan. 1 and wait for their letters or use their passwords to get their results on the Web site on April 1.

I would like to hear from Extra Credit readers about this change. If followed by significant numbers of other colleges, will it make the college admissions system better or worse?

Many admissions officials and high school guidance counselors say Harvard has done the right thing, because eliminating early admissions reduces the advantage that middle-class students have. Those students, many of them in Montgomery and Fairfax counties, have the money and the know-how to make the system work for them. They know in many cases that applying early increases one's chances of getting into that school, because colleges want to take students who are strongly committed to them and are particularly happy to see affluent applicants who won't need much scholarship aid and may become big alumni donors someday. They make sure they take the SAT or ACT in the junior year, visit colleges the summer before senior year and have everything ready for that Nov. 1 early-application deadline.

Low-income students are at a disadvantage, many experts say. They need financial aid to go to college and prefer to wait to see which college gives them the best deal. That makes it difficult for them to commit to one college in December.

Letitia "Tish" W. Peterson, co-director of college counseling at the Holton-Arms School in Bethesda, praised Harvard interim President Derek Bok and admissions and financial aid Dean William R. Fitzsimmons for leading their university on this new path. "Both men have long held that it should be the mission of universities to give equal access to students from disadvantaged and underrepresented groups, and this move is certainly a step in the right direction," she said.

But there are also experts who think the change, if adopted widely, might make college admissions worse for many students and colleges. Joan Goodman, school administrator at the New School of Northern Virginia in Fairfax County, said EA allows many seniors to put the stress of college applications behind them before Christmas. The students using EA or ED, she noted, are the ones most likely to be taking Advanced Placement courses, pursuing outside activities and creating what is widespread concern about teenagers burning themselves out -- dramatized in the new Alexandra Robbins book about students at Walt Whitman High in Bethesda, "The Overachievers." So why not let those student have this one angst reducer?

Interestingly, Robbins recommended getting rid of ED as a way to relieve stress, but many experts think it would have the opposite effect. If students could not lock up an early acceptance from the college of their choice, they would have to apply to more schools and pay more admission fees. Arlene Matthews, admissions adviser and author of the book "Getting In Without Freaking Out," said ending early admissions would bring "an increase in the number of students who apply to 12, 15 or 20 schools, which in turn gluts the entire system and makes admission anywhere a statistically tougher proposition." Eventually those extra applications melt away, but not before many people have had to suffer in the purgatory of the wait list.

Some experts also think ED and EA relieve stress for the most stressed admissions and high school counseling offices. "At a small school like ours, having some students apply early eases the January-February crush of transcripts and recommendations that need to be coordinated and sent out to colleges," said Goodman of the New School.

Richard H. Shaw, Stanford University's dean of undergraduate admission, said big, wealthy, selective schools such as his and Harvard "can stand on their own two feet" no matter what admissions system they adopt, but less-selective schools might be faced with "chaos" and "difficulty in predicting what is going to happen" after they send their letters out if they eliminate early-admissions programs. Handling many applications in November also cuts down on the winter and spring workload.

And would the change help low-income students that much? I think removing early admissions eliminates what has been a useful sharp stick for poking at high schools that don't do a very good job at college advising. Many bright high school students arrive in 12th grade without having taken the SAT or ACT, without having visited any campuses and without even having had a conversation with a counselor over what kinds of colleges interest them. Getting rid of the early-admissions deadlines gives those high schools one more excuse to let students' junior year slide by with little effort to help them. This rarely happens in Fairfax or Montgomery counties, but Harvard wasn't thinking about such places when it made the change anyway.

Getting rid of early admissions won't make it any easier to get into Harvard, which will still reject nine out of 10 applicants. But will it make the process easier and better for more students and families? Let me know. I will publish the best responses and see which way our local experts are leaning on this.

Please send your questions and responses -- along with your name, e-mail or postal address and telephone number -- to Extra Credit, The Washington Post, 51 Monroe St., Suite 500, Rockville, Md. 20850. Or send e-mail

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