Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Soon, Everyone Will Be Regular at Harvard

The New York Times reports today that Harvard will end its policy of early admission, in which students may receive a non-binding offer of admission early rather than late in their senior year, for the Class of 2012. The explanation:

Harvard University, breaking with a major trend in college admissions, says it will eliminate its early admissions program next year, with university officials arguing that such programs put low-income and minority applicants at a distinct disadvantage in the competition to get into selective universities.


“We think this will produce a fairer process, because the existing process has been shown to advantage those who are already advantaged,’’ Derek Bok, the interim president of Harvard, said yesterday in an interview.


Mr. Bok said students who were more affluent and sophisticated were the ones most likely to apply for early admission. More than a third of Harvard’s students are accepted through early admission. In addition, he said many early admissions programs require students to lock in without being able to compare financial aid offerings from various colleges.

Bok's statement is quite odd. If the existing process is unfair, then it can be fixed or scrapped. Is Bok saying that it would be impossible to fix? The problem--that there is a perceived advantage to applying early--would seem to be rectified by lowering the admit rate for the early pool and raising it for those applying at the regular deadline. Determining the financial aid awards at the same early deadline doesn't seem like an insurmountable burden to place on the admissions officers, either.

The statement is particularly odd in the context of Harvard's program, which really isn't unfair in the way being described at all:
Under Harvard’s early admissions program, which is known as early action, students do not have to decide until May 1 whether to accept an admission offer. Even so, many potential applicants did not understand the distinction between Harvard’s program and those that require an upfront commitment and were discouraged from applying, Mr. Bok said.

It seems like a prospective applicant who cannot fathom this distinction is a poor candidate for admission to one of the nation's most highly regarded institutions.

I have never really understood why colleges go through this early admission process. Students, I understand. They want to be relieved of this anxiety sooner rather than later. I presume that college admissions officers value the ability to select the members of each incoming class in multiple stages. The results of the first stage give them the opportunity to modify their selection rules for the remainder of the class to get the characteristics they want. I guess that Harvard's decision just indicates that they don't get much value out of this timing option.


Richard Schwartz said...

From talking with admissions officials in the past, I belive that the main reason schools have favored the early decsion program (with the required committment if the offer is made) is that it helps manage yield. There is an optimal target for the number of students admitted, and past statistics guide how many applicants are offered admission in order to reach that target. A slight miss on the low side is correctable by going to a wait list. A large miss in that direction, though, and too many wait-listed students will have chosen to go elsewhere, leaving the school short of the target. A slight miss to the high side can probably be absorbed with some creative arrangements by the housing office. A large miss in that direction, though, can result in a serious housing crunch. By substantially cutting down the size of group offered admission in the second stage and without guarantee of enrollment, early decision reduces the probability of a large miss in either direction.

Daniel Kahn said...

But Richard, that still doesn't explain the advantage of Early Action programs like Harvard's. Then they have to worry about 2 yields: the kids that chose to apply early and the kids that apply in the regular round.

(This is assuming that even some of the most likely Harvard-bound seniors choose to wait until May 1, rather than accept as soon as they are offered admission).

Nathan Empsall said...

Even if financial aid offers were made at the same early deadline, students still wouldn't be able to compare them to other institutions. Some early decision schools, like Yale, prohibt you from applying ED to multiple schools, so while you might know your financial aid offer early from Yale, you won't know how it stacks up to the other offers you'll get in the spring.

Good blog.