The Tradition of Early Admissions
Harvard University recently announced that it is ending early admissions beginning with fall matriculants in 2008. That decision has prompted editorial praise from The New York Times, the Chicago Sun-Times, USA Today and The Atlantic online, among others.
Harvard Dean of Admissions William Fitzsimmons said the move was largely an attempt to benefit low-income students. Percentage admission rates of acceptance are typically higher for applicants who apply early at most of the highly selective universities. There is a widespread belief that low-income students have been disadvantaged in the high stakes college admissions race because they lack the sophistication and resources to compete with wealthy students who get their applications in early. Commenting in The Times, Lloyd Thacker, the executive director of the Education Conservancy, a nonprofit group created to lobby for an overhaul of admissions procedures, said that Harvard's new policy was in the "public interest." Harvard's interim president Derek Bok opined that "the more schools abandon this process, the healthier the admissions process will be."
Well, that's the fairy tale version of this story, anyway. The reality is that there is no data supporting the magical belief that flocks of underprivileged youth have been shut out of elite colleges because universities admit students in two waves. Although early admission applicants are generally admitted at higher percentages than students from the regular applicant pool, that is because they are better qualified applicants.
In fact, the Harvard application for admission in 2007 makes that very point. Harvard warns students that their chances of acceptance will not be increased by applying early. "Higher Early Action acceptance rates reflect the remarkable strength of Early Action pools -- not less rigorous admissions standards. [Harvard's]... Early Action applicants have, on average, stronger admissions credentials than regular applicants... For any individual student, the final admission decision will be the same whether the student applies early or regular."
Early admissions policies benefit both accepted applicants, who are assured of attending their top choice school and spared the angst of waiting until spring to find out which college they will attend, as well as universities that lock in students to whom they have committed. Deferred and rejected applicants lose nothing, as the former group can still hope to be picked in the regular admissions pool while simultaneously, with the latter group, getting applications in to other colleges.
Though many of Harvard's competitors have publicly lauded that university's decision, only Princeton has followed the Crimson into the bog. Biddy Martin, Cornell University Provost, was quoted in theithacajournal.com: "It is not yet clear whether Harvard's decision is going to be the right one for Cornell." Duke University Dean of Undergraduate Admissions told The Herald Sun, a local North Carolina newspaper, that, "(W)e're certainly not going to make an immediate change." An editorial in the student-run Yale Daily News has urged that college not to drop its early action program. Karl Furstenberg at Dartmouth said that "early decision works well for Dartmouth and its students." Lee Stetson, Dean of Admissions at the University of Pennsylvania told the Los Angeles Times that his university's early admissions process was "very successful" for the school and its students.
Some students want the opportunity to apply early to universities or they wouldn't bother sending in their applications. It makes no sense to eliminate early admissions programs which benefit those students without disadvantaging any other students.