Early admissions trend may lower acceptance rates

Chronicle Staff

Harvard College’s decision to eliminate its early admission option next year, recently echoed by Princeton University and the University of Virginia, may hurt Harvard-Westlake’s college acceptance rate in the Ivy League and other highly selective institutions if it becomes a trend, President Thomas C. Hudnut said.

“I do not want to be in a situation where Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford are admitting the same group of kids and then fighting over them, in which event you really will have denied access, far more than promoting access, to a large group of qualified people,” he said. “Those of you who are seniors this year, be grateful.”

Both Hudnut and the deans hope that other selective schools take what Hudnut called a “wait-and-see approach” before eliminating their early programs.

“If it’s just Harvard and Princeton, it will make some impact, but not a lot,” Dean Mike Bird said. “But imagine if Stanford and Yale join that bandwagon. A lot of our best students apply [early] to those four schools. If they couldn’t do that, how many would just apply to all four of them because they could do it? And those kids will cut into the acceptances for other kids, they really will.”

Harvard announced its decision last month with the hope that other schools would follow suit, and Princeton and the University of Virginia made similar announcements in successive weeks. All changes will begin to affect students applying in the fall of 2007.

“I think Harvard definitely sees itself as a leader,” Sam Teller ’04 said, who writes for the Harvard Crimson. “Harvard likes making splashes.”

The schools claim that the move to end early admission will reduce college stress and help poor and minority students in the admissions process.

“Students from more sophisticated backgrounds and affluent high schools often apply early to increase their chances of admission, while minority students and students from rural areas, other countries, and high schools with fewer resources miss out,” Harvard interim President Derek Bok said. “Students needing financial aid are disadvantaged by binding early decision programs that prevent them from comparing aid packages.”

“We agree that early admission ‘advantages the advantaged,’ Princeton President Shirley Tilghman said.
Harvard currently offers an early action program that allows applicants who send in their forms by Nov. 1 to be notified by Dec. 15 as to whether they have been accepted, rejected, or deferred to the regular pool of applicants.

The program differs from the “binding” early decision program at Princeton, the University of Virginia and at other elite universities, which require all students who are accepted early to attend the school.

All students admitted to Harvard early have until May 1 to decide if they are going to attend, which allows students who require financial aid to apply early without having to worry about getting locked in to a particular aid package. The university also recently expanded its financial aid program so that families making less than $60,000 a year do not have to pay tuition, William R. Fitzsimmons, Dean of Admissions at Harvard College, said.

“Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and say they meant what they said about improving access,” Hudnut said. “I guess the proof of the pudding will be in a couple of years when we see how the demographics of their student body look. If this is the rationale for their doing it, then we can expect the face of Harvard to be very different in five years from what it is today.”

Early decision and early action are often used by schools to gauge the interest level of applicants, and binding early decision programs have helped some schools improve the quality of their student bodies by ensuring that highly-achieving students it accepts will attend. At some schools, acceptance rates are two or three times higher for the early applicant pool than for regular decision, giving credence to claims that students who apply early have a greater chance of being accepted. At Harvard, 38 percent of the students admitted last year were granted early admission, Fitzsimmons said.

Historically, the early acceptance rate to Harvard has been much higher for Harvard-Westlake students. Last year, five out of 14 early applicants were accepted to Harvard, compared with only one out of 44 for regular decision, Dean Sharon Cuseo said.

However, it is unclear if students who apply early gain an advantage in the admissions process. All nine early applicants who were deferred to the regular pool by Harvard were ultimately rejected, Cuseo said.

“Harvard takes whoever they’re going to take, whenever they apply,” Cuseo said. “If you’re appealing to them, they’ll take you if you apply early, and they’ll take you if you apply regular.”

Twelve years ago, Harvard became the first Ivy League school to begin accepting the Common Application, which allowed students to use one set of forms to apply to many different colleges and cut down on their workload.

Their decision to do away with the early timetable is, in part, another attempt to reduce the amount of pressure put on college-bound high school seniors, Bok said. However, Harvard’s claim that its elimination of early admissions will help reduce stress has been met with skepticism.

“Harvard’s sort of making a statement,” Dean Jason Honsel said. “Whether that has a major impact in actual numbers, I don’t think so. Kids are still pretty stressed out in April too. It’s not like the stress goes down.”

“They want to reduce stress for the poor teenagers, and that’s a good reason to do it, but I’m not sure it’s going to,” Bird said. “I just think stress is inherent in 2006 American teenagers who are highly achieving and ambitious.”

“I think that it actually causes more stress because if you have a student who really wants to go to Harvard, but can’t apply early to Harvard anymore, you will apply to Harvard, Yale, Princeton and all the other big schools,” Hailey Orr ’07 said. “It would make it really hard for someone who just wants to go to Stanford, for example.”