Princeton & Harvard End Early Admissions

Five years after a seminal Atlantic Monthly article broke the story about the widespread and pernicious use of early decision admission systems, Harvard University dropped its early admissions program. This week, Princeton followed suit. Good for Harvard, good for Princeton, and good for the country.

By way of background, there are two types of early admission systems. Under the "early decision" system, in October of a high school student's senior year, he or she makes a binding decision as to where to attend school if accepted. As matter of policy, students who are accepted early decision may not apply to other schools in search of a better financial aid package. Princeton used early decision admission until yesterday.

Under the "early action" system, in October of their senior year, students submit a non-binding application to a preferred school, receive an answer by mid-December, and are free to apply to other schools in the Spring. Institutions differ in whether they will allow students to apply early action to more than one school. Harvard used early action until last week.

We have debated whether colleges should end binding early decision on their own and come out with a firm "yes." Why? Because at elite colleges, over 40% -- in some cases over 50% -- of incoming classes are admitted early decision. Applying early is worth the equivalent of 100 added points on the SAT, according to a 2001 Harvard study of over 500,000 applicants to 14 of the top 20 colleges. Because of the need to compare financial aid packages, low-income students are significantly disadvantaged in receiving favored consideration. As a result, students who apply early are 50% more likely than regular decision applicants to be wealthy. At highly selective schools, the early decision pool is more than three times as white as the regular decision applicant pool.

Yale, Stanford, the University of North Carolina, and recently, the University of Deleware all ended their binding early decision programs in an effort to promote student body diversity. Harvard has taken the next step and also ended early action, which like early decision also has disparate socioeconomic and racial impacts, albeit not structurally so. Princeton has gone further (because it had futher to go) and pledged to skip the early action step and simply use only one, regular decision process. Higher Ed Watch congratulates Harvard, congratulates Princeton, and congratulates this Presidential hopeful who four years ago called on all colleges and universities to clean up their admissions systems.

"The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice."