The Harvard Effect

Now that the country's most visible university has decided to do away with early admissions, will anyone else follow?
September 13, 2006

Harvard University, in announcing plans Tuesday to eliminate its early admissions program next year and move to a January 1 application deadline for all undergraduates, made clear that it would welcome any institution wanting to follow its lead.  

"We hope other places will give up early admissions," said William R. Fitzsimmons, Harvard College's dean of admissions and financial aid. "Plenty of institutions that are exceedingly strong [in enrollment rates] could consider this. It’s not a small number. It’s a large number."

Whether any of Harvard's highly competitive brethren take action between now and next fall, when the college's policy goes into effect, remains to be seen. James Moeser, chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which actually beat Harvard to the punch four years ago in abandoning its own early decision policy, said Harvard's decision will, at the very least, set an important precedent. "Now that the big rock has moved, will there be more? Yes, I think so," Moeser said Tuesday at a conference at Chapel Hill about increasing access to higher education for low-income students.

Many admissions deans are praising Harvard's move, saying it will shape the discussion on equal access to college. For years, education experts have said that the practice of binding early admissions favors wealthy applicants who have the benefits of college counseling and don't need to compare financial aid packages among institutions. Colleges are generally filling more and more of their classes with early applicants, which some feel adds increasing pressure on high school seniors to select their favorite college by late fall.  

According to the National Association for College Admissions Counseling's annual State of College Admission survey, which measures fall 2005 data, 58 percent of colleges that offer early decision reported an increase in applications from the previous year, up from 37 percent in 2004. For early action, which is non-binding, that number was 80 percent, up about 25 percent from a year ealier.

Early indications are that colleges are in no rush to eliminate early admissions. Marilee Jones, the dean of admissions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the university has no plans to change its non-binding early action program. Jones's comments in The New York Times Tuesday that Harvard's move "has the capacity to change a lot of things in this business" raised some speculation that MIT would consider being among the first to follow in Harvard's path.

Officials at Columbia University, Dartmouth College, the University of Pennsylvania and Yale University all said they are content with their current policies, which they say take into account the financial needs of lower-income students and enable them to create a diverse class. 

As far as mass policy shifts go, recent history isn't on Harvard's side. When North Carolina eliminated its early admissions program in 2002, some experts predicted that a number of colleges would follow suit. While a few made changes to their programs, none eliminated them. (This June, the University of Delaware got rid of its early admissions.) 

Chapel Hill's Moeser said the institution had seen "no [negative] impact in terms of the quality of our classes or our yield" from its decision to abandon early decision. Jerome A. Lucido, who was vice provost and admissions director at Chapel Hill when it made that move and now fills a comparable role at the University of Southern California (which, he pointed out, never had a policy of admitting students early), said he believed North Carolina had reaped significant benefits from being out front. "I think students and their families rewarded us," he said. "They saw us as taking the pressure off of families and making the right choice."

Richard C. Levin, Yale's president, said in a statement that it's unclear that eliminating early admissions would result in the entrance of more students from low-income families. He said that under any program, early or not, increasing the pool of low-income students who apply and strengthening their financial aid packages are the goals. The university ended its binding early decision program in 2002 and replaced it with an early action program that gives students until the spring to make their choice.

Karl Furstenberg, dean of admissions and financial aid at Dartmouth, said Ivy League colleges have, as a whole, done a good job improving financial aid packages and increasing their efforts to recruit low-income students. He said early admissions programs don't have to be inequitable, and that he would be surprised to see Dartmouth do away with its system, which brings in about 30 to 35 percent of its class per year. Still, he applauded Harvard's move, adding that "they had clearly felt some discomfort."

The University of Pennslvania has no plans to change its early admissions policy, which has been in place for 40 years, according to the admissions dean, Lee Stetson. Columbia released a similar statement saying it is content with its early admissions program.

Harvard’s program, which was adopted more than 30 years ago, is non-binding and allows students until May to make their choice. Fitzsimmons, the Harvard admissions dean, said the university wanted to bring attention to the country's increasingly high stakes and high pressure admission process, which he said "has veered out of control badly in the past three or four years." Harvard plans to evaluate its admissions move each year and considers this a two- to three-year experiment. “It’s easy to sit back and think of Harvard as invulnerable,” Fitzsimmons said. "We know it's a risk being out there by ourselves."

Christoph Guttentag, dean of undergraduate admissions at Duke University, said that if no college follows Harvard, and the university notices a decline in the quality of its class, the university could always turn back. Richard Zeckhauser, a Harvard professor of political economy and co-author of the book The Early Admissions Game: Joining the Elite, said that if institutions such as Princeton University and Stanford University stick with early admissions programs, even non-binding ones, they will "undoubtedly enroll top students who would have applied early to Harvard and gone to Harvard prior to this change."

Still, many feel Harvard is the college to take this risk because of its endowment and high yield rate. "If anyone can fight this battle, it would be Harvard," said Christopher Avery, a Harvard professor of public policy and co-author of the admissions game book. "Harvard is saying, 'We are willing to lose students in order to have a fair admissions system. They are making a bet that other colleges will get rid of their programs, or that it will be an advantage even if the school just makes a point." Fitzsimmons said there are plenty of qualified students who are willing to wait until spring to hear back from colleges.

Avery said he was "startled" by Harvard's decision. "This has been a program that has worked well for many years, but also a program that unintentionally caters to the well-connected and the privileged," he added.

Guttentag, of Duke, who travels with Fitzsimmons on recruiting trips, said he was "completely surprised" by the move. He said he had expected more colleges to move from binding early decision (which Duke has) to the sort of "single choice" early action that Harvard and others have used -- where the early application isn't binding, but an applicant can apply only to one place. That approach, he believes, caters to students' interests -- being able to identify a first choice and show a college that it is their first choice, and less to the interests of institutions. Guttentag said Harvard's move may well have "taken the entire concept of 'single choice' off the table."

Admissions deans at some of the highly competitive, but smaller, liberal arts colleges, said they are in a different position from Harvard when it comes to admissions. Dickinson College, for instance, gets slightly less than half of its class of about 600 students each year from early admission. Robert J. Massa, vice president for enrollment and college relations at Dickinson College, said the program helps the college get an early idea of its fall enrollment, and it has no plans to eliminate the program.

He said it is encouraging that Harvard would take a stance to address a symptom of the college admissions angst. But "it's a mistake to believe that binding early programs are, in and of themselves, the root cause of the national college admissions frenzy," said Massa, the former dean of enrollment at Johns Hopkins University. “Elimination is the easy solution. What we need to do is make early decision transparent, and make low income students aware of their options. Having a bunch of institutions saying, 'I'll get rid of my program if you do isn't getting to the problem.' "

Massa said there's a misconception among many applicants that because they are accepted to a college with a binding admission program, they must enroll. He said students should know that they can still discard the application and enroll elsewhere if the financial aid package isn't to their liking.

Still, some colleges have worked to reduce the percentage of their class that is admitted early. Duke's Guttentag said that less than 30 percent of its incoming class is accepted before January 1, as compared with well into the mid-30s a few years ago.

Thomas Parker, dean of admission and financial aid at Amherst College, said his institution restricts early admissions to 30 percent. Parker said "far too many colleges are taking far too great a percentage of their class" that way. He said he expects a more robust discussion about the economics of early admission in the coming months.

“We’re happy with where we are," Parker added. "If we were to venture out there on our own among small liberal arts colleges, there would be a considerable risk. If we would do it in company with Williams and other liberal arts colleges, there would be less risk.”

Richard Nesbitt, director of admissions at Williams College, said that the institution has had early admissions since the early 1960s and that he would be surprised if many colleges, including his, follow Harvard's lead. He said athletics admissions also play a role -- It behooves colleges to admit athletes early, particularly if the institutions are concerned about losing the student to another college, or if the athlete is a borderline admit.

William Shain, dean of admissions and financial aid at Bowdoin College, said it has not considered dropping its early admissions program.  He said the college's admissions rate for early applicants is no different from its rate for those who apply during the regular period. "Early decision isn't bad," he said. "The way a number of schools have run it is."

John Blackburn, admissions dean at the University of Virginia, said he anticipates plenty of discussion over the next few years about the state of early admissions. "Whenever Harvard does anything, it's more than a trickle down -- there's a major effect," he said. "When Harvard acts, it causes other people to say, 'That's the highest order of ethical behavior.'"


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