Campus & Community

Harvard to eliminate early admission

6 min read

Beginning next year Harvard College will eliminate its early admission program and move to a single application deadline of January 1, the University announced today (September 12). The change in policy, which builds on Harvard’s efforts over the past several years to expand financial aid and increase openness in admissions, will take effect for students applying in the fall of 2007 for the freshman class entering in September 2008.

“The college admissions process has become too pressured, too complex, and too vulnerable to public cynicism,” said Harvard interim President Derek Bok. “We hope that doing away with early admission will improve the process and make it simpler and fairer.

“Early admission programs tend to advantage the advantaged,” Bok continued. “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. Students needing financial aid are disadvantaged by binding early decision programs that prevent them from comparing aid packages. Others who apply early and gain admission to the college of their choice have less reason to work hard at their studies during their final year of high school.”

Many leaders in higher education have spoken publicly about their concerns regarding early admission programs. Harvard will thus delay the shift to a single admissions deadline until the fall of 2007, so that other institutions wishing to make a change will have time to adjust their processes in the same admissions cycle. Furthermore, Harvard will commence the unitary system with a two- to three-year trial period so that it can monitor the impact of this change and make sure that it does not have a negative impact on student quality.

“I am delighted that President Bok and the Corporation have determined that we are in a position to take this excellent step,” said Jeremy R. Knowles, interim Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “The frenzy that surrounds college admissions threatens important educational values, and early admission programs are part of the problem. These programs distort the high school experience by forcing both students and colleges to commit prematurely, based only upon the record at the end of the student’s junior year. Moreover, students who are admitted early receive what often appears to be a ‘free pass’ for their second semester, sadly encouraging them to disengage from their academic experience.

“I hope that our decision to eliminate early action will help to turn down the heat on admissions, allowing students, parents, and teachers to continue to focus their energies on the joys and rigors of education itself,” Knowles continued. “The impact will obviously be greater if other institutions join us in moving to a single, later, admissions cycle. I hope they will.”

For students applying this year (fall 2006), Harvard’s admission process, including early action, will be unchanged. Beginning in the fall of 2007, the application deadline for all applicants will be January 1. Harvard will maintain its current April 1 notification to students, and May 1, the national common reply date, as its deadline for receiving responses from students.

‘Early action’ versus ‘early decision’

Harvard’s existing early admission program, adopted over 30 years ago, takes the form of nonbinding “early action,” rather than the binding “early decision” used by many colleges with early admission programs. Under Harvard’s current early action policy, students who apply by November 1 are notified by December 15 as to whether they are admitted, denied, or deferred to the regular pool. They are not, however, bound to accept an offer of admission, and they have until May 1 – the deadline for regular admissions – to make their decision.

Harvard’s early action program differs from so-called “binding” early decision programs, whereby a student makes a commitment at the time of application to attend if admitted. Harvard has always had early action rather than early decision because it preserves the ability of students to apply to other colleges during the regular admissions cycle, to compare financial aid packages, and to make a much more informed choice in May, rather than October, of their senior year.

“We have always felt that early action avoids the most troublesome aspects of binding early decision while preserving the original aim of early admission – providing students with early notification of admission without binding those who change their minds later in the process,” said William R. Fitzsimmons, Dean of Admissions at Harvard College. “If after several years with a single admissions deadline, we find ourselves needing to reinstate early admission to preserve the quality of our student body, we will return to early action.

“We are concerned, however, that even our non-binding program contributes to the pressures and inequities of the college admissions process,” Fitzsimmons continued. “Only the more sophisticated students and families look behind the label of ‘early admission’ and distinguish early action from binding early decision programs. Thus students from less advantaged backgrounds either fail to take advantage of early admission because they are less well-advised overall, or they consciously avoid our program on the mistaken assumption that they will be unable to compare financial aid packages.

“Under the leadership of Larry Summers, we have worked aggressively over the past several years to expand financial aid, and families with incomes under $60,000 are no longer required to contribute to the cost of a Harvard education,” Fitzsimmons added. “An early admission program that is less accessible to students from modest economic backgrounds operates at cross-purposes with our goal of finding and admitting the most talented students from across the economic spectrum.”

Expanded outreach and recruiting

Harvard intends to use the time and capacity freed up by the move to a single admissions cycle to focus more energetically on outreach and recruiting. Fitzsimmons and his admissions staff will travel more widely to make presentations in key cities and other areas to educate students, families, and college counselors about Harvard and the college admissions process more generally. The University will also work with secondary schools in a renewed effort to make applying to college less complicated and less stressful than it is today.

According to Fitzsimmons, this effort is particularly important in light of disparities in access to, and the quality of, college counseling. The average ratio of students to college counselors in the United States is 500/1. In some states, such as California, the ratio is 1000/1, and many high schools have eliminated college counseling altogether.

Some affluent schools, however, have student to counselor ratios as low as 50/1, in addition to parents who are more knowledgeable about college admissions and more likely to be able to supplement school counseling with outside help.

“As a person who has worked in college admissions for over 30 years, I am particularly grateful to Dean Knowles, President Bok, and the Harvard Corporation for supporting this move away from early admission,” said Fitzsimmons. “I hope and expect that this change will sharpen the focus of the admissions process on its most important goal – helping students find the right college match.”