Is early admission unfair?

Harvard's decision to scrap the practice this week has sparked a debate about how colleges should pick students.

When Jamie Dusseault applies to college this fall, she'll try what an increasing number of informed students do to better their chances at select institutions: Apply early.

"They say there's a 40 percent chance of getting in if you apply early, and a 30 percent chance if you apply regular," says the senior at Holderness School in New Hampshire, who is applying to Northwestern University. "I don't have any connections, so I thought I should make it the easiest possible to get in."

The strategy may ease the admissions process for some. But critics say it also rewards advantaged students in a system already skewed in their favor. So when Harvard University decided this week to do away with its early admission policy, it created a stir in the college- admissions world. Its decision has opened a national conversation about the equity and transparency of admissions, the fairness of early admission, and how any number of admissions practices contribute to the pressure cooker of the application process.

"Kids have these spreadsheets, and they rank things, and they have color-coded stars.... They flip coins, they weep," says Peter Jenkins, director of college counseling at Northfield Mount Hermon, a private high school in Gill, Mass. "In taking this new stand, [Harvard] has made a commitment to lessen the sort of psychosis that strikes families in September and October of the senior year."

The decision has been widely praised, though most say it will only have a significant impact if many other schools follow suit. Some question how much scrapping early admission by itself will help reform the system. Early admission is the equivalent of adding 100 points to a student's SAT score, according to one study.

The decision fits into a larger pattern of Harvard's commitment to making admission fairer for the less-advantaged, says William Fitzsimmons, the school's dean of admissions. Students who lack good counseling in high school or whose parents lack knowledge about college admissions miss out on the early-admissions cycle, he says. "Now those students will be able to consider Harvard in their senior year and see a level playing field."

He also hopes the decision will jumpstart a conversation about other ways colleges can help ease the admissions frenzy.

"Never in all my career have I seen such a positive reaction to something," says Dean Fitzsimmons. "It seems to have touched a nerve in a lot of people."

Harvard used a less stringent form of early admission, called "early action," which lets students choose another school after they've been accepted. More common is "early decision," in which a student commits to a school in advance.

Some counselors see early admission as a useful tool that helps students find out their fate early. It also lets colleges – particularly those who use the more binding form of early decision – gauge a student's enthusiasm and make an offer they know will be accepted.

"I think it's to a student's advantage to know where they stand earlier in the admissions cycle," says Steven Roy Goodman, an educational consultant in Washington. "It gives them more time to pivot and move if they're not admitted."

But others say it might not be feasible for those who need to compare financial-aid offers. The process should have "access, equity, and transparency," says Lloyd Thacker, founder of the Education Conservancy, which advocates admissions reform. "Early admission violates all three of those."

He's hoping that Harvard's decision will push other schools to follow – either in scrapping early admission entirely, or in looking at other ways they can make admissions more equitable. They might reevaluate how they use standardized tests, for example, or consider how to disengage from the college-ranking systems that emphasize quantifiable data like admissions rates.

"I think this raises a larger issue that all of us need to be thinking about: Can we get this process to be less stressful?" says Louis Hirsh, director of admissions at the University of Delaware. His school was the first to take this step. It got rid of early decision last year, for many of the same reasons, and Mr. Hirsh says that despite the few downsides – a higher admittance rate and not having part of the class locked in – it's been a great decision.

But it's unclear how many more will follow Delaware's and Harvard's lead, despite all the adulation. Some schools – lower-tier Ivies like Cornell or Brown, for instance – might see this as an opportunity to take students who would prefer to attend Harvard but aren't sure they can get in, says Richard Zeckhauser, a political economy professor at Harvard and coauthor of "The Early Admissions Game."

"It will put Harvard at a slight moral superiority and a slight competitive disadvantage," says Professor Zeckhauser. He'd like to see students have a way to signal interest – a star system, perhaps, in which they put a star on their top-choice application – without locking themselves in.

A few schools have already moved to deemphasize early admissions, but say they're unsure if they can get rid of it completely, given how important it's become in shaping the next class.

"I think some places will follow, but it will be interesting to see who does and who can," says Lee Coffin, dean of undergraduate admissions at Tufts University, which has begun selecting a smaller percentage of its students early. "To go from where we are to where we might be is going to take a lot of caution and planning."

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