There is much confusion, at Williams and elsewhere, over the rational (both explicit and hidden) behind Harvard’s decision to eliminate early action. Allow me to explain. Start with Harvard’s press release.

Beginning next year Harvard College will eliminate its early admission program and move to a single application deadline of January 1, the University announced today (September 12). The change in policy, which builds on Harvard’s efforts over the past several years to expand financial aid and increase openness in admissions, will take effect for students applying in the fall of 2007 for the freshman class entering in September 2008.

Harvard could have made the change effective for this year. If the change is a good idea, why not do it now? The reason is that Harvard is not just, or even primarily, interested in improving its own policies. It wants to change the structure of elite college admissions.

“The college admissions process has become too pressured, too complex, and too vulnerable to public cynicism,” said Harvard interim President Derek Bok. “We hope that doing away with early admission will improve the process and make it simpler and fairer.”

Why would ending early action make the process less “pressured”? The top students in high schools all around the country will get to stress out for 5 additional months. They will struggle to ensure that their grades for the first semester of high school are still stellar. They will continue to compete for every advantage. The more spread out the process is, the more students (especially the most accomplished and ambitious) are done with it sooner, the better for all concerned. The main reason that students apply early is that the sooner their future is settled, the better they feel, the more that they can relax and take stock of their lives, the things that they have accomplished and the future to come.

Also, will the process really become “simpler”? Perhaps. Hundreds of students (thousands, if more schools follow Harvard’s lead) will be filing many more applications since they can’t be sure which colleges will accept them. The workload for admissions offices (and recommendation letters writers) will become more compressed, more focused in just a few months of the year.

But the key topic is fairness. Will the new system be more fair than the old one?

“Early admission programs tend to advantage the advantaged,” Bok continued.

First, note that reference to “early admissions programs” in general rather than to Harvard’s early action program specifically. Not all programs provide such an advantages. MIT and Caltech, for example, both offer early admissions programs that provide the same odds of admissions to applicants as they would receive in regular admissions. Applying early to Harvard improves your odds of acceptance. Applying early to MIT does not. Bok’s quote only applies to programs, like Harvard, which as a matter of conscious policy give an advantage to early applicants. Harvard could have kept early action and just made it fair, held early applicants to the same standards as regular applicants. It didn’t do that because its goal is not to be fair. Harvard’s goal is to change the structure of elite admissions.

Second, the terms “advantaged” is a strange one. It is true that the same applicant who applied early to Harvard had better odds than if she applied regular decision. An applicant who knows those odds has an advantage, in a sense, over one who does not. But this advantage has nothing to do, directly, with money or class or race. It has to do with information. Harvard could remove this advantage anytime it wanted to by using the same standards for both rounds. Or Harvard could be honest about this advantage. It could provide a fair description on the process on its admissions website. It could stop lying, at least by omission, to its applicants. See The Early Admissions Game for proof of Harvard’s disingenuousness.

In other words, the main reason why some high school seniors are “advantaged” is because they are smart enough to know that Harvard lies to its applicants.

“Students from more sophisticated backgrounds and affluent high schools often apply early to increase their chances of admission, while minority students and students from rural areas, other countries, and high schools with fewer resources miss out.”

Again, the reason that they miss out is because Harvard (and some other schools) mislead them. Start being honest, start describing accurately on the admissions form the improved odds which come from applying early, and all students (not just those from elite high schools with plugged-in college counselors) will understand the process.

“Students needing financial aid are disadvantaged by binding early decision programs that prevent them from comparing aid packages.”

This is a real problem and may be an issue at some schools. But it is not a problem at Harvard because Harvard allows for early action. Students can apply to as many other schools as they like regular decision and compare aid packages to their hearts content. Moreover, a majority of elite schools have such generous financial aid policies, at least for any family below median income, that there is little benefit from shopping around.

Of course, there are some schools and families for which these are real issues. Isn’t Harvard, with its billions of dollars, generous to try and force those schools to behave as if they had all the money in the world? Thanks Harvard!

As always, the correct answer is disclosure. Tell applicants and their families the honest truth.

“Others who apply early and gain admission to the college of their choice have less reason to work hard at their studies during their final year of high school.”

Can’t have that! We want those elite students working their fingers to the bone all through high school. Keep studying, studying, studying!

The point of all this is that the private reasons that Harvard (and people like Lloyd Thacker) are lobbying for the end of early admissions are not the same as the public reasons that they provide to the rest of us.

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