COLUMN: Harvard acts early, transforms college admissions for the better

By Lally Gartel

In high school, I was one of these people who couldn’t quite handle the whole college admissions process. I started sitting in front of my computer at obsessive college admissions Web sites, like, trying to calculate exactly how good my essay would have to be to compensate for a bad freshman year and a three on that AP Biology exam.

In short, I flipped out. I ended up applying early to a respected private school early action and waiting on that decision before applying anywhere else. And then, some time in December, I got in! Oh my goodness! I was so happy and ecstatic and all that anxiety and – well, I got no financial aid. So I couldn’t go. The bright side is that in retrospect, the University of Illinois is so much better for me than any other college would have been, and it’s a steal, even with rising tuition prices.

The lesson learned was that the college admissions process is getting crazy. Every year, more and more students have higher and higher standards and expectations of themselves and their peers, who, in that six months of perilous application processes, become rivals.

A few weeks ago Harvard, the most prestigious university in the United States or at least the one with the most universally acknowledged pedigree, announced it was doing away with its non-binding early action program. Harvard officials cited several reasons to do this, not least of which is that early action/decision programs put low income and minority students at disadvantages in the application process.

Most Ivy League schools, fueled by US News and World Report rankings, began early action programs, particularly the binding ones, to boost the number of admitted students that choose to attend. Harvard, for example, has one of the highest yield rates with 70-80 percent of admitted students choosing to attend. Binding early action programs lock in students early, cementing a high yield for universities looking to better their rankings.

Of all the schools that can choose to alter their admissions programs, Harvard is in the best position. They have the highest yield of any college in the country, and their decision to attempt to change the world of college application should be applauded for two reasons.

Early action and decision programs clearly put economically or socially underprivileged applicants at a disadvantage due both to the quality of their high schools and counselors. It is the savvy students, families and counselors that understand and exploit the advantages of early admissions programs. Similarly, early decision and early action programs make it much harder for admitted students to compare financial aid.

Low income applicants cannot afford to be locked into binding early admissions programs, since they need time to compare financial aid packages before deciding which college to attend. Even in the case of non-binding early action programs, poorer families cannot just choose to invest in the first and/or most respected choice. This isn’t an issue for Harvard, who pays for the education of students with family incomes under $60,000 a year, but it is certainly an issue at other institutions.

While this information and access issue could be solved with information campaigns and the reworking of financial aid decision, the simplest and fairest decision is to eradicate early decision altogether. The most striking and important facet of this decision, though, is the fact that other schools will follow suit. Princeton has already gotten rid of its program, and other public and private schools are on the way, including the University of Virginia and Yale who are both re-evaluating their early decision programs.

Equalizing admissions processes will certainly not take the edge off of college admissions in general. But it will at least begin to highlight and guarantee fairness in the admissions process, signaling a progressive and fair-minded approach to higher education which has as of late been overshadowed by the rat race that is applying and attending college.