Harvard drops early admission
Harvard University shocked the world of elite college admissions Monday when it announced it is abandoning its early admission program, saying the move is intended to make the admissions process fairer for disadvantaged applicants.
The announcement — unprecedented among the nation's top universities — has forced Princeton officials to reconsider the future of the University's own early decision program, which requires students to matriculate at Princeton if they apply early and are accepted.
The move came as a surprise to Princeton administrators. Dean of Admission Janet Rapelye applauded Harvard's decision but declined to speculate about whether Princeton would join its rival in abandoning early admission.
"The choices are expanded for us now, because one of our chief competitors has made quite a bold statement," Rapelye said. "It allows for opportunity that perhaps wasn't there before. We will be factoring that into a conversation that we have about all of our programs."
"I literally can't predict what we're going to do, or maybe we won't do anything," she added. "We don't have a plan in place."
When Derek Bok, Harvard's interim president, and the six members of the university's governing board ratified the change in policy, they abandoned a tradition of early admission which, in various forms, has been in place at Cambridge for over three decades.
Amid mounting public criticism of such programs, Bok conceded in announcing the shift that the annual scramble for highly-coveted positions in elite colleges had become excessively stressful and unfair.
"We hope that doing away with early admission will improve the process and make it simpler and fairer," he told the Harvard Gazette. "Early admission programs tend to advantage the advantaged."
"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."
Though the University of Delaware announced a similar change last spring, Harvard is the first elite university to eliminate its early admission program entirely. The change will take effect beginning next fall.
"I was surprised by Harvard's decision," President Tilghman, who has defended early decision in the past, said in an email, "but on reflection, it is consistent with work that ... Bok ... has been writing for some time now about the importance of equal access for all talented students to selective colleges and universities."
In recent years, about 50 percent of applicants to the University have been admitted early. And those students apparently face an easier road to acceptance: 26.8 percent of early applicants were accepted last year compared to just 7.8 percent for regular decision applicants.
Rapelye now faces the challenge of balancing two competing goals: maintaining Princeton's impressive admission statistics and fixing what some say is an unnecessarily hectic and possibly discriminatory college admissions process.
"In the world of selective college admissions, we are in a position of strength and while of course, I'm always thinking about what our admit rate and what our yield is and how we can improve both, I also realize that we sit in a privileged position in higher education and there are other colleges and universities that say to us, we follow your lead," Rapelye said.
"I feel a particular responsibility to do the right thing, not only for the competitive advantage — to find what's the next right move for Princeton but also for higher education. ... If we were to make any changes, it would only be to think about the overall goal of making this as fair a process as possible."
George W. Schnetzer '60, chair of the Alumni Schools Committee, the group responsible for organizing alumni interviews of applicants to Princeton, has been a vocal critic of the University's early decision program and has called for reform.
"My sense is that if Harvard is going to do it, I would love to see Princeton go ahead and do it too," Schnetzer said in an interview, adding that Harvard's bold move "may make it possible" for other schools to take a leap previously thought disastrous to their competitive advantage in the admissions process.
"Harvard being the 'first among equals,' I think everyone was afraid that if they didn't keep their early policies intact, Harvard would steal a lot of students."
Referring to Tilghman, Schnetzer said his "sense is that she is certainly sympathetic to considering disbanding the policy."
College counselors nationwide have also expressed support for Harvard's decision, encouraging other colleges to follow suit.
"I do think that the early programs are advantageous to people with college counselors and to students of higher socioeconomic status," said Sharon Cuseo, a counselor at Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles, Calif., which regularly sends students to Princeton.
The elimination of early admission programs, she said, "takes away some of the gamesmanship. I think we would support it."
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