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Early-Action Overreaction

The world has apparently changed, irrevocably and for the better, with Harvard's decision to end early admissions entirely. This may very well be true: it is certainly a move of noble intentions. But so much of the analysis of Harvard's plan has focused on the goodness of their hearts, and so little on what Harvard without early admissions might actually look like.

Today, that picture is one of distinct disadvantage for lower-income and minority students who may not, for varying reasons, apply early. The main reason seems to be that other colleges -- but not Harvard -- have binding early-decision programs that sometimes entice students away from a shot at the nation's #2 ranked school. Binding policies also often require a decision before financial aid details become available. (I've never been convinced that this is a tragedy; plenty of top-ranked schools don't require a binding decision. I'll concede the point anyway, because I'm not an admissions expert.)

The real problem was never Harvard to begin with -- they don't force anyone to make uninformed decisions. But the hope is that Harvard will pressure other schools to abandon their binding policies. So far, so good, except for one thing: This could actually become an incentive for other schools to keep their early action or early decision programs, since they'd have a larger pool of available students who would be, essentially, fair game.

So, let me sketch an alternate vision of what might happen after Harvard's bold move:

Without early admissions, the regular -- or only -- application pool would be larger and more competitive. Instead of the frenzied application process beginning in junior year, it would be delayed but even more hectic. This would especially be true if other top schools abandoned early admissions. Here's a quick example from this past year's Harvard admissions data, according to the Times story and accompanying chart (which appear to contradict each other):

Harvard admitted 813 students early last year at a rate of 21% (even though the chart, which counts only freshmen, says that 4,214 applications were submitted early, which comes out to about 885 admits, a difference of 72). And according to the story, 1311 students were admitted in the regular pool at a 7% rate (although again, according to the chart, there were 18,582 applications which works out to about 1,301 admits). Combine the two, and you have 22,796 applications and 2,124 admits, which works out to a 9.3% overall acceptance rate. Let's say everyone is right, and the number of applications will increase next year without early action. In order to keep the freshman class at about the same size, Harvard would have to become more selective. Competition would increase, and therefore the disadvantaged would likely lose out even more.

Andy Guess | Posted on September 12, 2006 (#)


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