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The Record

Will others follow Harvard's move?
Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Harvard University hopes its decision Tuesday to abandon its early admissions program will prompt other colleges to do likewise, reforming a brutal application process that has become more cutthroat each year.

"Early admissions programs tend to advantage the advantaged," said Harvard interim President Derek Bok. "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."

Not everyone welcomes the change.

"This will cause more anxiety, not less," said Robert Shaw, a partner at Ivy Success, which has steered many North Jersey students into the nation's elite schools. "Students will now have to work harder, because colleges like Harvard will be able to factor in their performance from the first half of senior year. They will have to stand out even more, relative to the entire pool of applicants. Tired admission officers may have more jaded eyes after reading all those applications in a month and a half. Before, these students were competing against 800 to 2,000 kids. Now they're competing against 23,000."

Harvard won't make the change until fall of 2007 for the 2008-09 school year, to give other colleges time to follow suit. Meanwhile, kids nationwide will have to rethink their strategy for getting into Harvard and, possibly, other Ivy League schools.

Princeton , ranked No. 1 by the college-tracking U.S. News & World Report, has said it will stick with its early admissions option -- for now.

"We find this to be very interesting news," said Cass Cliatt, a spokeswoman for Princeton , which requires early decision applicants to enroll if accepted. "We have said previously that it would be a challenge for an institution to make a policy change in isolation, but if we see our peers moving to a policy of a single-admission date, we could be comfortable making a similar change."

John Beckman, spokesman for New York University , was similarly noncommittal.

"Harvard's decision was audacious," he said. "Every selective university like ourselves is going to think long and hard on it. Certainly we haven't made any decisions yet."

Rutgers declined to comment on the announcement. Yale and Brown said they don't expect to follow Harvard's lead.

Advantage for some

Though early admission programs differ by school, they generally allow students to apply no later than Nov. 1 and receive a decision by mid-December. In exchange, most colleges require students to promise to enroll. At Harvard, early action students do not have to make quick, binding decisions.

Low-income students tend to avoid early admission applications, either because they're less well-advised overall or because they think they won't be able to back out if another school makes a better financial offer.

Though initially designed to simplify the process for bright students with a clear favorite choice, early admission has evolved over the past 10 years into an essential strategy for those in the know. Advocates say early notice eliminates student stress and allows colleges to lock in committed, enthusiastic applicants.

Critics of early admission -- and there are many -- say the process favors wealthy kids, those savvy enough to play the game well or rich enough to hire college coaches to help them. They contend that early decision applicants don't take the time to select a college that best matches their academic interests. And they say it has fostered a frenzied, distasteful game of mutual manipulation: Students jockey to increase their chances, while colleges use binding early admissions to beef up the percentage of accepted students who enroll, which makes the schools appear more desirable.

Even admissions officers are dismayed by the intense pressure generated by early admissions.

Marille Jones, dean of admissions at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, posted a blog on Dec. 11, 2005 -- the Weekend of the Big Wait, when early admission decisions are mailed -- lamenting her own daughter's angst about early decision. The girl, a high school senior, opted not to apply early anywhere, then agonized that she would be left in the dust because of it. All but five of the 94 seniors in her class had applied somewhere early.

"I am just horrified by the pressures inherent to the admissions process everywhere -- horrified as a mother and a dean," Jones wrote.

Others came first

Harvard's decision Tuesday follows a similar announcement last May by the University of Delaware to drop its early decision program, beginning in the 2007-08 school year, citing the same reasons Harvard did. University of North Carolina dropped its early application program in 2002.

Most guidance counselors have long disliked early application programs, believing they exacerbate an already tense process. Though September is not half over, some counselors are getting calls from parents of seniors who are worried that their children haven't filed college applications yet.

"These poor kids are crazed," said Rona Meyers, head of guidance at Northern Highlands Regional High School in Allendale. "They're thrown into this rushed procedure, where they have to get everything in by Nov. 1 and have all their test scores done, and they can't test later to see if they might do better."

Outside the Bergen County Academy for the Advancement of Science and Technology -- always flush with Harvard applicants -- word spread about Tuesday's announcement.

"If they're worried about pressure, it's too late!" said Jenna Grossano, a junior from Hasbrouck Heights laboring over physics homework. Still, she said, "Anything they can do to help people who don't have the $40,000 a year it takes to go there, do it."

Harvard will try out its new program for two or three years. If it appears to reduce the quality of students, Harvard will return to early admissions.