Princeton has had some form of early admission program for almost 30 years. Since 1996 it has had an "early decision" program that requires students who apply early to Princeton as their first-choice school to commit to enroll at Princeton if admitted. This year 598 applicants were admitted early to the freshman class, accounting for almost 49 percent of the 1,231-member class.
At Harvard, the admission decision was not binding on the student. So Princeton appears to be giving up a more restrictive program, now having the same program as Harvard. Here's how the University explained the decision:
"We are making this change because we believe it is the right thing to do," said Princeton President Shirley M. Tilghman. "The ultimate test of any admission process for Princeton is whether it is fair and equitable to all our applicants and whether it allows us to enroll the strongest possible class.
"In recent years we have instituted the most generous financial aid program in the country, and we have significantly increased the diversity of our student body. We believe that a single admission process will encourage an even broader pool of excellent students to apply to Princeton, knowing that they will be considered at the same time and on the same terms as all other applicants."
In making a similar announcement last week, Harvard pointed to the inequities of early admission programs for less advantaged students and concerns about early admission that many secondary schools have expressed with increasing urgency in recent years.
"We agree that early admission 'advantages the advantaged,'" Tilghman said. "Although we have worked hard in recent years to increase the diversity of our early decision applicants, we have concluded that adopting a single admission process is necessary to ensure equity for all applicants. 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. We hope very much that our decision will encourage other colleges and universities to join in eliminating early admission programs."
I should be clear before I launch into criticism here. I have no particular interest in whether there is early admission, early decision, or neither. I want the best incoming class of students as well. If the admissions officers say that they can better achieve that with one deadline rather than two, then so be it.
But I will reiterate the point from my previous posts. If there was an advantage to applying early, then it was Harvard and Princeton that created it. Nobody forced Princeton to admit half its class at the first deadline--that was its own doing. Why didn't it admit only a third or a quarter of the class that way? (If it was "because they didn't want to reject meritorious applicants," then the argument crumbles.) What I object to is these two universities describing the perceived inequities in early admission as if they were passive actors, caught up in a process beyond their control.
I would be curious to know whether, conditional on observables like test scores, high school GPA, and financial aid eligibility, the probability of admission was higher for early admission applicants. If it was, why have that be so? If it was not, why claim that the process was unfair? So perhaps this is the right decision, perhaps not. But there is nothing particularly noble about it.