BOSTON – With a $29 billion endowment and 370 years of history, Harvard University says it can afford a gamble that could shake up the world of elite college admissions.

Harvard announced plans Sept. 12 to drop its “early action” admissions round – and urged rivals to follow. Under early action, applicants get word by late fall if they’ve been accepted to a college, but can still apply elsewhere in the spring. Some other schools have “early decision,” meaning accepted applicants cannot apply elsewhere.

Harvard said such early admissions programs have two harmful effects: they may hurt schools’ diversity because poor and minority students are less likely to use them, and they create anxiety for the typically more affluent applicants who take advantage of them.

Nearly 23,000 people applied to Harvard last year – including about 4,000 in the early round – but the move’s broader significance is that it could persuade other elite universities to change their admissions policies. Many other prestigious colleges have acknowledged early-admissions has become a strategy tool for the well-connected, and have tweaked their programs. But none has dropped them.

If others follow Harvard’s lead, it could noticeably change the college application experience of high-achieving students. Applicants would face less pressure to identify a first choice early in their senior year of high school – but would also lose the chance to put the process behind them.

If other colleges don’t follow Harvard, the school’s dean of admissions William Fitzsimmons acknowledged it may soon abandon the experiment. Princeton University, on Monday, also announced it is dropping its early admissions program.

“We agree that early admission ‘advantages the advantaged,”‘ Princeton President Shirley Tilghman said.”We believe that elimination of early admission programs can reduce some of the frenzy, complexity and inequity in a process that even under the best of circumstances is inevitably stressful for students and their families.”

Princeton had an “early decision” program, meaning applicants get word by Dec. 15 of their senior year, but must attend if accepted.

There is no suggestion that Harvard, which admits one in 10 applicants, by ending early acceptance would lose appeal with top students. But there is some risk Harvard could discourage exceptional students who might be drawn to schools where they can lock in a spot.

“There’s no question (losing good students) is a risk,” Fitzsimmons said. “We just felt it was much more important to do the right thing.”

School counselors welcomed the announcement. “I threw up my hands in glee,” said Joanna Schultz, director of college counseling at the Ellis School in Pittsburgh, where about 60 percent of students apply to college early. Early admissions rounds are “pushing everything into the first two or three months of senior year,” she said. “It doesn’t let kids have a senior year.”

Harvard’s change will not affect high school seniors applying to the university this fall.

Harvard admits about 21 percent of early applicants, compared to about seven percent in the later pool. It says that’s largely because the earlier pool is academically stronger. Still, the early pool is far more likely to contain sophisticated applicants who have access to savvy college counselors and don’t need financial aid.

Harvard and its peers have expanded financial aid but continue to face criticism for catering to the rich. At the most selective schools, a 2003 study found, just three percent of students came from the poorest socio-economic quarter of families, while 74 percent came from the richest.

“If anybody can afford to take these kinds of risks, it would be Harvard,” said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. “When you turn away nine out of 10 applicants … so what if you don’t get your No. 1 choice? Your No. 6 choice is still exemplary.”

There were mixed signs from other peer universities about how they would respond. Yale, MIT, Dartmouth and the University of Pennsylvania, among others, have all indicated they would likely keep their current systems – at least for now.

Most of the rest of the approximately 400 colleges that use early action and early decision are unlikely to give them up, lacking Harvard’s resources, the talent of its bottomless applicant pool – and even the staff to read so many applications at once.


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