A significant change in policy has predictably decreased the number of students applying to Harvard College under its nonbinding Early Action program by almost 50 percent compared with last year. The Office of Admissions and Financial Aid estimates just under 4,000 students will apply Early Action for admission to the class of 2008, compared with the record-high 7,615 Early Action applicants to the class of 2007.

But that’s a good thing, says William R. Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid, a corrective shift that results in more thoughtful, less pressured decisions by student applicants.

Fitzsimmons called the decrease in applicants “quite predictable” in light of this year’s change in policy. The change restricts Early Action applicants from applying Early Action to other schools. The change is a return to a pre-1999 policy.

“Harvard returned to its long-standing policy because of evidence that early admissions programs, as they had evolved across the country in recent years, were no longer serving students well,” says Fitzsimmons. “Too often we heard from high school counselors that students were making hurried, almost frenzied multiple early admission choices without sufficient research to determine if these colleges would provide the best match for them.”

Admissions officers and high school counselors had been concerned that students felt pressure to apply early to college, without taking their full senior year to comprehensively explore college options. In addition, the rush to early admissions could hurt students from low- and moderate-income families who have had less access to adequate college counseling and who may benefit from applying to a range of colleges that might offer more generous financial aid.

While the quantity of Early Action applications dropped sharply compared with last year, quality remains constant. “The academic credentials of the pool this year appear to be identical to last year’s outstanding group,” says Marlyn McGrath Lewis, Harvard’s director of admissions. The number of applicants this year is consistent with numbers applying before 1999, when the policy was the same as it is this year.

Admitted Early Action applicants will still be able to apply to other colleges under their regular admission programs. “This will allow all students to have a variety of college options, and for financial aid applicants to compare various financial aid awards,” says Fitzsimmons. All students will have until May 1 to make their final college choices.