Harvard to Discontinue Early-Admissions Process

Harvard announces it will end its early admissions program, a move that is sure to send ripples through the world of elite colleges and universities — and through high schools where competition to get into the schools is fierce.

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Top tier colleges around the country are considering their next moves now that Harvard says it is ending early admissions. Harvard said it wanted to take a little pressure out of the pressure-packed application process. Education experts believe that if other schools follow suit, Harvard's move could help poor and minority applicants.

NPR's Tovia Smith reports.

TOVIA SMITH: Harvard's early admission program is one of the more student-friendly since it's not binding on students. But officials say they still came to the conclusion that the process ends up doing more harm than good. It not only fuels the college application frenzy for all high school students, but Harvard officials say it also tends to favor affluent kids who may be more savvy and strategic and don't need to worry about financial aid.

Dean of Admissions William Fitzsimmons says having one deadline for all students will level the playing field.

Mr. WILLIAM FITZSIMMONS (Dean of Admissions, Harvard University): This is a clear message to everybody, rich and poor, that, you know, Harvard is open to you. And that we're not playing games, you know, we don't have any, you know, trick program early. It's going to be a free and open competition for everybody.

Unidentified Woman: Cause I was ready to do my homework before you came.

Unidentified Woman #2: No, Amy came along.

GIRL: Yeah. It really was…

Unidentified Woman: At Buckingham, Browne and Nichols, an elite private school in Cambridge just down the river from Harvard, nearly three-quarters of student apply early, somewhere. But as Director of College Counseling David Clark puts it, it's often for the wrong reason.

Mr. DAVID CLARK (Director of College Counseling, Buckingham, Browne and Nichols): This whole thing pushing up to where we have students, who in October are coming in and saying, I'm applying early, I just don't know where - because they have heard that there is an advantage to applying early - is one of the most frustrating things of all for someone who is working as a college counselor. That pressure is overwhelming for them. So that they feel that they have to jump into the gaming of this whole process.

Clark says that adds to the angst of those who can't afford to apply early, like 17-year-old senior B. Anna Mashawn(ph). He says it would be too risky for him to commit to a school before he knew how much financial aid the school would offer and before he could compare that to other schools.

Mr. B. ANNA MASHAWN (17-Year-Old Senior): That's actually like the biggest reason. Because you don't want to get trapped into a situation where you think that you're able to pay and you can't pay. That's happened to my sister.

SMITH: While many other Ivy League schools have acknowledged the problems with early decision programs, experts say only a Harvard could afford to take the risk of going first. Now that Harvard's done it, others, like Princeton, say they may be more likely to follow suit.

Lloyd Thacker is head of the Education Conservancy, a nonprofit, that pushes for admissions reforms.

Mr. LLOYD THACKER (Head of Education Conservancy): In many ways this is an icebreaking kind of an event, by the most powerful college in the country. And it will help colleges realize that it's not only an opportunity, it's also responsibility and, in fact, an obligation.

SMITH: But it may be that other top universities opt for more of a compromise. Several years ago Yale changed its early admissions programs so that students can find out early if they're accepted, but then don't have to commit until spring. In a statement today, President Richard Levin says, it's not clear that totally eliminating early admissions will boost the number of low-income students.

Tovia Smith, NPR News.

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Nine Things You Need to Know About Early Action

Harvard's decision to eliminate early action for the Class of 2012 adds one more twist to an already confusing process. If other schools follow suit and phase out early admissions programs, the college application process could change radically. Here are nine things you need to know about applying early in the wake of the Harvard announcement, courtesy of three experts in higher education.

Jack Maguire is the former Dean of Admissions at Boston College and founded Maguire Associates, a consulting firm which advises higher-education clients on marketing to prospective students.

Jonathan Reider is the director of college counseling at San Francisco's University High School and a former senior associate director of admissions at Stanford University.

Chris Avery is the Roy E. Larsen Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University and co-author of The Early Admissions Game. In his current research, he studies college application patterns and enrollment choices of high school students.

1. Harvard's decision may eventually simplify the admissions process, but for now, you need to be familiar with five options.

Depending on where you apply, you'll probably have at least two options from this menu: regular decision, early decision, single-choice early action, multiple-choice early action, and rolling admissions.

Regular and rolling admissions are the least complex. With regular admissions, you can apply to as many schools as you'd like, and weigh various financial-aid packages before making a final decision. But you may not find out whether you're accepted until April, and at many schools, the acceptance rate for regular admission applicants is lower than for early applicants.

With early decision, you apply in the fall and find out in December if you're admitted. The decision is binding; if admitted, you must withdraw all your other applications.

Early action has two variations: single-choice and multiple-choice. With both variations, you apply early and find out your decision in December, but the decision is nonbinding. You are allowed to also apply to schools through regular decision, and compare financial-aid packages.

2. Next year's class of high school seniors can no longer apply to Harvard for early action.

The new policy takes effect for next year's applicants to Harvard. However, some Ivy Leagues have not followed Harvard's lead. Yale, for instance, has decided to keep its early action option.

3. Some students benefit from early decision; others don't.

At selective schools, the acceptance rate for early applicants is almost always higher than for the pool of regular applicants. "If you know exactly where you want to go," says Chris Avery, "It will help your admissions chances to apply early."

But early decision presents what Jack Maguire calls a "catch-22" for students who need financial aid: "If you apply early you might have a higher chance of getting in versus if you apply late you might have a higher chance of getting money."

4. Harvard can afford to abolish early action, but not every school can.

Harvard's yield is the highest in the country. Almost 80 percent of the students admitted to Harvard's Class of 2006 decided to enroll, so the school doesn't have to worry that ending early action will have any impact on the profile of its student body.

"A kid has to be very thoughtful about turning Harvard down," Reider says.

5. Applying early isn't good for a high school student's stress level (not to mention their parents'.)

Instead of digging into their senior year classes, early applicants may end up spending way too much time focusing on their application.

6. Early application can come back to haunt you in freshman year.

Many early admittees slack off the second they get their December acceptance. That may sound good to high schoolers, but what colleges have found is that many of these kids have gaps in their senior year education as a result.

"Both college and high school faculty are concerned that seniors aren't working hard enough," says Maguire. Harvard's decision will mean that their applicants will have to work throughout the spring in order to be accepted in April.

7. Harvard's decision won't have dire consequences for legacy applicants.

Harvard's "not going to forget about legacy and development cases. They're not going to revolutionize the process," Reider says. Nor should overachievers worry. If you're the head of your class and president of the Drama Club and scored a 1600 on the SATs, there's no reason to think this decision will affect your chances.

"The top kids — the wicked smart kids who were getting in early — are still going to get in regular later," says Reider. "What's going to change is a little bit at the end of the process, you're going to have more spaces to fill."

8. Athletes who dream of representing the Crimson needn't worry, either.

If you're trying to become the next Harvard quarterback, the end of early action won't affect you one way or the other. Harvard is part of Division 1, which recruits athletes independent of the early decision timetable.

9. In the coming weeks, at least a few other schools are likely to follow in Harvard's footsteps.

Yale and Stanford are two possible copycats, Reider says. When Harvard announced it was changing from multiple early-action to single early-action, the two schools each followed suit. And other selective schools have a habit of following Ivy League initiatives as well.

Bonus Tip: Don't think about cheating the system if you are applying early decision.

No matter how sneaky you are, your high school counselor must send your transcripts out. And a counselor will not send out more than one transcript if you've applied early decision or single-choice early action. But what if you somehow manage to outfox your overworked counselor? Then you could be in big trouble — if the schools find out, they'll all reject you.

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