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The Restoration of Early Admissions

In the contest between doing well and doing good, universities, like people, usually choose the former. So it was somewhat surprising, and heartening, back in 2006 when Harvard, Princeton, and the University of Virginia each unilaterally disarmed in the competition for students by forgoing early-admissions policies.

Those universities’ officials noted at the time that they believed early admissions gave an unfair leg up to advantaged students, who had the knowledge of the benefits of applying early, and who didn’t need to compare financial-aid packages between institutions. The advantage of applying early is estimated to be the same as scoring 100 points higher on the SAT.

Back in 2006, the universities hoped that others would follow, and for a while, it seemed they might. I remember attending a conference at Yale University around the time of Harvard’s announcement, and the attendees were all abuzz about whether Yale would follow suit. The subject of the Yale conference was giving more low-income students a seat at the table, and many participants were optimistic that Yale would do the right thing. Yale didn’t, and Harvard, Princeton, and UVa remained lonely (if virtuous) exceptions to the early-admissions frenzy that polling finds has actually grown in recent years.

It was disheartening, and more predictable, when Harvard announced yesterday (and then Princeton, within hours) that they were restoring early admissions. The University of Virginia made a similar announcement this last November.

Harvard and Princeton will be using the “early action” form of admissions, which does not bind students and allows them to apply to other institutions through the regular admissions cycle. (“Early decision” requires a binding commitment to attend.) Early-action programs do permit low-income students to compare financial-aid packages, which is important. But research finds that they still effectively disadvantage students who don’t play the early-admissions game because they don’t have adequate counseling.

According to a recent study by Julie J. Park of Miami University and M. Kevin Eagan of the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute, the students who apply early-action are more economically advantaged and more likely to be white.  The authors found that students who received private college counseling, and those who attended high schools where college counselors had smaller numbers of students to advise, were more likely to apply early. Park and Eagan conclude: “At a minimum, institutions need to look inward and ask serious questions about the patterns of who applies and is accepted early, and the implications of offering advantages to students who generally already are advantaged in the admissions process.”

Harvard, Princeton, and UVa did that soul searching five years ago. But in the end, the worry about losing out in the competition for highly qualified advantaged students appears to have trumped the concern about missing out on the highly qualified but disadvantaged ones.

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