Surrender to Early Admissions

Harvard and Princeton both restore "early action" plans -- amid evidence that applicants and institutions alike are more anxious than ever for certainty.
February 25, 2011

In the fall of 2006, first Harvard University, then Princeton University, and then the University of Virginia announced that they would end programs in which applicants applied earlier than the regular deadline -- and also found out months early whether they had been admitted. With those decisions by elite institutions, the many critics of early admissions policies thought that they had momentum to end practices that many saw as creating needless anxiety and favoring wealthy applicants.

That momentum never materialized -- and other colleges and universities did not abandon their early programs.

On Thursday, both Harvard and Princeton announced that they were restoring early admissions options. Significantly, they are restoring nonbinding "early action" options, not early decision -- and many skeptics about early admissions say that the biggest problems arise with binding programs, particularly at colleges that are not as generous with student financial aid as are Harvard and Princeton. But the decisions -- coming just a few months after Virginia reversed course as well -- suggest that early admissions is more popular than ever. Indeed, officials at all three universities -- which were praised in 2006 for sticking up for students by ending early options -- said that they had changed their mind in part because of demand from applicants.

In an interview, William R. Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard University, recounted talking to a potential applicant this year who "very much wanted to come to Harvard" and who he thinks would have been admitted. "She was being recruited very heavily by an early decision school, lots of calls," he said. "And she felt she had to get it over with. She did it and she was gone."

She illustrates, Fitzsimmons said, "that in some cases the very students who were the target of our giving up early admissions, we are losing because of the recruiting pressures." He added that "we didn't want Harvard to be perceived as not accessible to students -- and we were hearing that because we didn't have an early program, we weren't meeting the needs of these students."

Further, Fitzsimmons said that anxiety from students and their families has been greater during this economic downturn than during any other he has seen -- and he's been working in Harvard admissions since 1972.

Generally, experts on admissions predicted that the shifts by Harvard and Princeton would have some impact on the application behavior of those high school seniors who are at the very, very top of the applicant pool, but -- given that Harvard and Princeton hardly lack for applicants, and are unlikely to be any easier to get into under the new policy -- those shifts may not reflect the real significance of Thursday's news. What may be more important is what the actions by these universities, combined with trends at many others, say about the difficulty of bringing about admissions reforms and discouraging early admissions -- especially during an economic downturn.

"In this environment, uncertainty sort of dominates everybody's thinking," said David Hawkins, director of public policy and research at the National Association for College Admission Counseling. "In this environment, the questions that surrounded early decision a few years ago take a back seat."

And while high school counselors predicted that a subset of students would love the new options, others said that this is a move in the wrong direction for higher education.

Jerome A. Lucido, executive director of the Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice, at the University of Southern California, said that while the shifts by Harvard and Princeton were "understandable," they are unfortunate. "I think they did the right thing a few years ago," he said. American higher education -- particularly for those who will never go to Harvard and Princeton -- needs to send signals that there are "lots of good choices" for students, and that the rush to pick a college isn't necessary. Harvard and Princeton sent that message a few years ago, but not Thursday, he said. "It will be a lot easier for colleges to follow this example than the more virtuous example" of dropping early admissions, he added.

The Many Forms of Early

Early admissions comes in many forms. Many noncompetitive colleges practice rolling admissions and inform students right away whether they may enroll. The debate among college admissions officers, high school counselors and others about early admissions -- starting in the late 1990s -- focused on the policies of selective colleges. Among these institutions, some practice "early decision" -- in which students must pledge to enroll if they are admitted. Others practice "early action," in which no pledge is made. (Harvard had early action through 2006 and is going back to it; Princeton had early decision at that time, although it had early action previously and is shifting now to early action.)

The theoretical benefit for students was that a small number of high school seniors figure out a clear first-choice college early in the process -- and that they would benefit from knowing early on whether they can enroll at those places. But colleges also gained by locking in some students early in the process -- and enabling the regular admissions cycle to be used to round out a class, rather than starting from scratch.

Criticism of early admissions grew as competitive colleges started admitting large shares of their classes (sometimes close to half) early. Students were advised that their odds of admission were greater (and at many colleges they were) if they applied early, and reports grew of "early admissions frenzy," in which students felt pressured to make a decision.

Many colleges also reported that their early applicants were more likely than those in the regular pool to be white, wealthy and from good high schools. That's not surprising, of course, since those who would need to compare financial aid packages from different colleges would be hesitant to pledge to enroll at one college before seeing all available aid packages. A series of articles -- most notably a 2001 piece by James Fallows in The Atlantic Monthly -- led to much hand-wringing at admissions gatherings about early admissions being out of control.

Even as educators talked about all of the downsides of early admissions, applicants from good high schools continued to apply early in greater and greater numbers -- until Harvard and then others announced their shifts. In restoring early action, both Harvard and Princeton stressed that they believed they could offer an early option without placing any groups of students at a disadvantage.

Fitzsimmons of Harvard said that the university would start new outreach efforts to high schools that have not historically sent many applicants to Harvard, and that students would be told specifically about the possibilities of applying early.

Back to Back Announcements

There was considerable speculation among college counselors Thursday about the fact that Princeton's announcement followed Harvard's by just hours. Janet Lavin Rapelye, dean of admission at Princeton, stressed in an interview that the university made an "independent" choice, but she acknowledged that the process was very much influenced by Harvard.

"We were disappointed" that other colleges didn't end early programs when Harvard, Princeton and Virginia did a few years ago, Rapelye said. Even though Princeton was pleased with the classes it admitted without any early option, she said that Harvard's public discussions about reviewing early admissions necessitated a close look by Princeton. "We did not think it was going to be practical, if Harvard went back, to be the only school in our peer group" without an early option, Rapelye said. "We wanted to make sure we were ready."

She declined to answer whether Princeton would have made a different decision had Harvard not announced a shift. "We thought this was the right decision," she said.

Both Harvard and Princeton were once part of the Overlap Group, through which they made the aid packages of admitted applicants comparable -- until the Justice Department told them such practices amounted to antitrust violations. Ever since, colleges have been skittish about comparing policies on anything that could be seen as giving someone a competitive edge in a way that might attract Justice Department interest. Leaders of many private colleges that award non-need-based financial aid (a group that does not include Harvard and Princeton) complain that they would like to shift such aid to needy students, but would need to negotiate with their competitors so that everyone did it at the same time -- and they can't have those discussions without antitrust issues being raised.

On the issue of consultation, Rapelye said that "sometimes these big decisions are hard to make and they are hard to make independently."

She added, "I think we all balance every year the commitment we have to putting our classes together, and fulfilling our institutional priorities and trying to do right by the students."

But she declined (as did Harvard's Fitzsimmons) to criticize the colleges that might have joined in abandoning early admissions, but chose not to do so. "I think everyone is doing what they have to do to enroll a class," Rapelye said. "Everyone has different competitors and a different budget, and they have to make the decision that is right for them."

While Harvard tends to get the credit for abolishing early admissions, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill made an earlier move -- in 2002 -- to eliminate a binding early decision program (although it kept a nonbinding program). Stephen Farmer, associate provost and director of admissions at Carolina, said that the university has "never regretted" the shift and that officials there "felt as though we were jerking students around, and that's not how we want to do things." He said that the nonbinding early option "works well for both students and for us."

For admissions officers, he said, "having an early deadline lets us space out our reading. If we had only one January deadline, and if we had to read 25,000 or 30,000 applications in two months rather than four, we wouldn't be able to do it."

The Impact on Students

Jon Reider, director of college counseling at San Francisco University High School, a competitive private high school, predicted that Thursday's announcements would have an impact primarily on the very small number of universities that compete with Harvard and Princeton. This year, of his senior class of 100, 6 applied early to Yale and 6 applied early to Stanford. With Harvard and Princeton in contention for early applications, Reider predicted that next year each of those institutions will see three applications from his high school, and Yale and Stanford might lose a few.

Reider chuckled at the idea that Harvard and Princeton are making this shift primarily because of concern about students who want more early options. "I didn't know that Harvard and Princeton had become branches of the Red Cross," he said. "It's like saying that people demanded the iPad or that the people demanded Coke Zero. They are responding to some research and there may be demand, but the basic goal is to sell a product."

The director of college counseling at another elite high school that sends many students to the Ivies (and who declined to be identified as he deals with all of these colleges regularly) had a similar reaction. "We have a lot of students in the Yale early pool, and some of them would be in the Harvard pool if Harvard had one," he said.

Generally, this counselor said, he was more worried about the students who feel pressure to apply early somewhere than those who lacked the Harvard option this year. He said he is struck by how many students come to tell him, as juniors, that they have decided to apply early, but that they have no idea where to apply or even necessarily what they are looking for. That is "all backwards," he said, and is the problem of the current system. But right now "it really stands out here if you don't apply early."

Nationally, the shifts in early admissions programs are headed in the same direction as are Harvard and Princeton. While colleges didn't follow them in 2007 in eliminating early options, many said that they were trying to minimize the use of the practice -- and surveys by NACAC suggested that some scaling back was going on. But that has ended.

A survey by NACAC found that 65 percent of colleges with early decision reported admitting more students through the process in 2009 than the year before, compared to only 43 percent reporting such increases in 2008. And the gap is growing between the admissions rates for early decision and regular applicants at the same institutions. Colleges with early decision admit on average 55 percent of all applicants, but 70 percent of early decision applicants.

Hawkins, of NACAC, said that these figures suggest a broader concern than the news from Cambridge. Many of these colleges admitting more students early do not meet full student need and don't necessarily do a good job of informing the students who are admitted early that they have the right to look elsewhere if the aid package isn't sufficient. "Colleges need to be clear about what is going on, and that's not happening in a lot of places," he said. What is happening, he said, is a focus on increasing the yield rate -- the percentage of admitted applicants who enroll -- and increases in the early pool help colleges do that.

Reform Ideas

Reider of San Francisco University High School said he is not opposed to all early programs, even those that are binding. He said that the real problem -- one that the NACAC survey suggests is widespread -- is when colleges have different admissions standards for early and regular admissions. When people start to think that "applying early is worth 100 SAT points," he said, that's when they feel unreasonable pressure to make a choice.

So Reider said that colleges should commit to having equal admit rates for early and regular decision. That's something they can do if they admit only 20 or 25 percent of the class early, but is typically impossible when they are admitting 40+ percent of the class early, as many are doing. Making the standards equal, he said, would end "the perception that 'I have to apply early.' "

Lucido of USC said that the announcements Thursday should be seen as a sign that the entire early application system is unhealthy. He said that while both Harvard and Princeton are taking sound steps to "mitigate" their return to early applications (primarily by offering nonbinding systems), they are offering an option that will be relevant primarily to those who already have plenty of help in the admissions process. "There is an advantage to those who come from well-resourced high schools and who have college-educated parents who understand these plans," he said.

He noted that even though Harvard and Princeton are as prestigious as universities come, and even though they have financial aid packages as large as anyone's, they report that they are losing applicants they like to other colleges that push hard on early applications. Those colleges that are wooing a few students away from the Ivies are going to go right on doing so, Lucido said, and many of the recruited students won't be recruited by Harvard. "When institutions on the order of Harvard and Princeton get whipsawed by the market we have created, you have to ask if this is the market we want," he said.


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