Seventh installment in a two week discussion of the recent New York Times article “Generation Later, Poor Are Still Rare at Elite Colleges” by Richard Perez-Pena. Interested readers should check out our collection of posts about socio-economic issues related to admissions, from which I have plagiarized extensively.

Harvard, Princeton, the University of Virginia and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill eliminated early admission programs that were seen as favoring affluent students.

How clueless is Perez-Pena? As I explained 8 (!) years ago, the programs themselves did not meaningfully favor rich students:

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.

Back to the article:

Some colleges stopped including loans in financial aid packages, so that all aid came in the form of grants. Others lowered prices for all but affluent families, not requiring any contribution from parents below a certain income threshold, like $65,000.

But the colleges that ended early admissions reinstated them within a few years, after other elite schools declined to follow their lead, putting them at a disadvantage in drawing top students.

Moral preening is only really fun if it doesn’t cost you anything. Once it does, it ends.

Recall our discussion from 2006

There is almost no chance that Williams will make a change now. It has too much to lose. It also stands the potential of making some non-trivial gains. First, students who, in the past, would have applied early to and gotten accepted by Harvard/Princeton, will now be tempted by early decision at Williams. Isn’t the appeal of having the whole process done by December 15th as great now as it was 25 years ago? Second, those students will need to apply to other schools regular decision, including Williams. Many will be accepted and some will fall in love with Williams. They will end up at Williams because Harvard and Princeton no longer provide an early admissions option.

Will either effect be large? Tough to know. But if even 25 kids, who would have gone to H/P, end up at Williams instead, that would be important to the overall quality of the Williams student body.

I predicted that this would happen:

[L]ots of schools have no interest in following Harvard’s lead because EA/ED (early action/early decision) are useful programs (for them). Of course, Harvard doesn’t care what lesser schools do, but if Yale/Stanford/Princeton don’t follow suit, EA will be back in two years.

In the end, it took longer than two years, but Harvard re-instated early action just as I foresaw. Harvard can put up with many things, but losing top students to its competitors is not one of them.

All of which gives the lie to the moral preening of 2006.

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