School & District Management

Harvard’s Drop of Early Admissions Fuels National Debate

By Alyson Klein — September 19, 2006 2 min read
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Spurred by a desire to make its undergraduate admissions process more fair for disadvantaged students, Harvard University announced last week that it plans to eliminate its early- admission program, which allowed some students to find out whether they were accepted several months before others.

The decision, announced Sept. 12, is also intended to motivate students to continue excelling in their high school courses during senior year, and take some pressure off an increasingly frenzied process, Harvard officials said.

The process of getting into college has become “too complex,” Harvard’s interim president, Derek Bok, said in a statement. “Students from more sophisticated backgrounds often apply early to increase their chances of admission,” he said, “while minority students and students from rural areas, other countries, and high schools with fewer resources miss out.”

Starting next fall, all students applying for the class entering in September 2008 will have a single application deadline of Jan. 1. They will learn by April 1, 2008, whether they have been admitted.

Under Harvard’s form of early admission, known as early action, students who apply by Nov. 1 receive word by Dec. 15 whether they have been admitted, denied, or referred to the general applicant pool. Students who are admitted under the option have until the following May 1, the same date as other applicants, to decide whether to attend the school. That gives students who are slated to receive financial aid a chance to compare packages.

Peer Review

Harvard’s decision could have an impact on its Ivy League peers and on other selective colleges, but it might not reverberate through out all of higher education, said Barmak Nassirian, an associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, in Washington.

“It’s one thing for Harvard to decide it’s not going to deploy this tactic; it’s another for institutions who don’t have Harvard’s brand power to let go of it,” Mr. Nassirian said. He said less prestigious colleges would continue to offer early decision to ensure a sizable—and well-qualified—freshman class.

“They do it because it works—it eliminates a significant amount of uncertainty for the school,” he said.

Still, Harvard is not alone in moving to scrap early admissions. Mr. Nassirian noted that while Harvard’s shift garnered a lot of attention, two other institutions, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Delaware in Newark, recently ended their early-decision programs.

Margaret L. Drugovich, the vice president for communication and enrollment at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio, said her school was unlikely to drop its early-action or early-decision options anytime soon. She noted that the school’s early decision program gives students a chance to review their financial-aid package before enrolling.

She said the early action program, “gives students a chance to know their options early” without needing to make a commitment.

“I have a feeling this debate is going to go on for some time,” Ms. Drugovich said. “Colleges will sort this out. … I’ve heard it suggested that since Harvard has done it, others will follow. But even if that happens, it will take a long time.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 20, 2006 edition of Education Week as Harvard’s Drop of Early Admissions Fuels National Debate

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