Harvard University's stunning decision to drop "early admissions" from its application process should prompt other schools to reconsider a practice that's now doing more harm than good. But let's hope their introspection goes even deeper.
The early admissions option has its useful function for both colleges and highschool seniors.
Students who have taken the time to look at various schools and who know exactly where they want to go can spare themselves the work of multiple applications by applying early to their first choice.
Colleges, meanwhile, can spread out the workload of reviewing applications. Early admissions allows them to better manage and plan for the number of freshmen, and to better compete for the nation's top students.
But "EA" has gotten way out of hand. Hundreds of colleges and universities rely on it, with some using it to draw more than 30 and 40 percent of new students. And once word got out that the chances of being accepted could improve with early admission, students flocked to it.
But only certain students. Harvard found that it's mostly white, well-off kids who apply early. With Harvard admitting 38 percent of its students early, this raises fairness and access issues for minorities and low-income kids. These students often don't have the family and school support to go through the EA process.
At the same time, early admission can limit an applicant's financial aid options. In many cases (not Harvard, though) EA requires an early, binding commitment to attend. This cuts off applicants from the opportunity to weigh financial offers from other schools that come later in the normal application cycle.
And there's another big problem: student frenzy and anxiety over early admissions. Making sure that one school is a surefire shot means earlier college visits, more practice tests, and the hiring of application consultants.
Many high schoolers have lost sight of the reason for early admission. They're doing it because everyone else is, or because it's a strategic advantage. They've forgotten the most important thing: finding the right fit. "I hear youngsters saying, 'I have to find a college to apply early to!' " says William Hiss, who was admissions dean for 22 years at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine.
Because Harvard attracts the best, it's doubtful it will sacrifice application quality by dumping EA. A handful of other schools are in the same position, and hopefully will follow Harvard's example. But many colleges are unlikely to change.
These schools, however, could switch from binding "early decision" to "early action," which allows an applicant to commit later on (usually by May). Or they could reduce the percent of early-admission students.
But colleges need the moral leadership to make a greater effort at improving student diversity, especially the socioeconomic mix. Only 6 percent of the poorest Americans receive college degrees by age 24 – about the same percent as in the 1970s.
Moving that statistic requires more financial aid, and greater recruitment efforts in low-income school districts. Harvard maintains that dropping early admissions will free up staff for just that kind of recruiting. You don't have to be Yale or Stanford to follow that advice.