THE BLOG
02/25/2011 08:16 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What Harvard and Princeton Don't Want You to Know

It's refreshing when two of the supposed most intelligent institutions in the world make an intelligent decision. This week, Harvard (followed an hour later by Princeton) announced that it would reinstitute the single action early action policy it abandoned four years ago.

Across the country, students, parents and high school counselors are heaving an enormous collective sigh of relief. In 2006, Harvard and Princeton stated that by eliminating their early programs (Harvard had early action, Princeton early decision), they would reduce the overall stress of the admissions process and make it a more level playing field for minority applicants. But that's not what happened.

In fact, the past two years have seen not only prodigious upticks in freshmen applications at top tier schools, but also the consequent (and predictable) trickledown effect throughout the top 50 colleges. These schools have been overwhelmed with applications: Harvard up 15 percent, Columbia up 32 percent, Princeton up 98 percent over the past seven years (and as a result they have had to hire part time readers to wade through the huge volume of applications). Why the huge rise in applicants in the regular round? In brief, because in order to "save" themselves for a shot at Harvard and Princeton in the regular round, students were reluctant to apply to the five Ivies (Dartmouth, Columbia, Penn, Brown, Cornell) that offer only binding early decision policies, flocking instead to non-binding colleges like Yale, Stanford, MIT and University of Chicago, all of which have some form of early action.

Those schools bore the brunt of these "extra" applicants. Chicago, Stanford, and Yale experienced a 40 percent rise in applicants two seasons in a row. Naturally, these schools couldn't simply accept a higher percentage of students, so they ended up deferring or rejecting many talented students who in any other year would have fared much better. As a result, many of these extraordinary students, facing an early round rejection, panicked and applied to 20-30 colleges, clogging the system and driving up the regular admissions numbers at schools from the Ivies and little Ivies to schools like Vanderbilt, Johns Hopkins, Emory and Northeastern.

As applications went up in the regular round, admissions odds went down with colleges around the country experiencing record low admit rates. Where did admissions odds diminish the most? At Harvard. Historically Harvard's early action acceptance rate (in the chart below) was 20-25 percent and they filled almost half of the class through EA. Without it, the acceptance rate plummeted to 7 percent.

Back in 2006, Harvard got rid of early in part to reduce pressure, or so they claimed. As Admissions Director William Fitzsimmons said in the Harvard Crimson, "We keep hearing that the frenzy and pressure at elite public and private high schools has really ramped up in the past two or three years...We think it's healthy for students to have that entire senior year to think about what school is the best fit for them."

Ironically, by getting rid of their early program, they might have reduced their own pressure, but caused an admissions frenzy of the highest proportion at almost every other top college. Now that all these colleges have either early action or early decision, it's easy to predict that next year, applicants whose first choice is Harvard can simply apply EA to Harvard, likewise for any other Ivy league school, allowing many top tier students to gain acceptance in the early round which in turn will preclude those students from applying to 20+ colleges in the regular around. After all, if you get into Harvard EA, at most, you'd probably throw in one or two more applications in the regular round.

Are Harvard's motives pure? Do they really care about family's stress levels or about attracting top underrepresented minority students? Why did they really get rid of early action back in 2006?

Let's take a walk back through recent history. Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Golden's groundbreaking book The Price of Admission: How America's Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges -- and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates showed in no uncertain terms how unfair the admission process was at top colleges, especially Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Duke and the like. In an influential review of the book in The Washington Post Jerome Karabel writes, "If there were any doubt, Golden's muckraking investigation...reveals that almost every word uttered by representatives of the top colleges about the care and nuance and science of the much vaunted admissions process is bunk...Harvard may say it accepts 1 in 10 applicants, but, Golden writes, as many as 60 percent of the places in a top school are already spoken for by higher bidders, hence reducing, in the parlance, the "unhooked" applicant's chances to... well, you do the math."

In his book, Golden goes on to name names, SAT scores, and other secret data of well-to-do and connected applicants who in effect bought their way into Harvard. The book showed clearly that wealth, connections and legacies (or as Golden calls them "elites mastering the art of perpetuating themselves") prevail at the elite colleges. Golden's book was published September 5, 2006. The Washington Post review was published September 10. When did Harvard announce the elimination of early? September 12, 2006, two days after Karabel's review. Coincidence?

And Harvard's purported justification for getting rid of early in 2006? "Early admission programs tend to advantage the advantaged," said Harvard's then-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. Students needing financial aid are disadvantaged by binding early decision programs that prevent them from comparing aid packages." Fitzsimmons said, at the time, that the removal of early admissions was "certainly a win for students in the bottom quarter and bottom half of the income distribution."

Now, in 2011 "We looked carefully at trends in Harvard admissions these past years and saw that many highly talented students, including some of the best-prepared low-income and underrepresented minority students, were choosing programs with an early-action option, and therefore were missing out on the opportunity to consider Harvard," said Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Michael D. Smith. Princeton President Shirley M. Tilghman offered that renewing early admissions will allow Princeton to better recruit students from underrepresented groups -- precisely the reason stated for getting rid of early in the first place!
What gives? Harvard and Princeton eliminated early action because few minority students applied in the early action round. Now they have put early action back because these same minority students were applying to other schools that retained early action/decision. Was it ever really about their concern for low income students and underrepresented minority students? (see my earlier post on this very issue) Or was it their mortification about the assertions in Golden's book, claiming that schools like Harvard and Princeton cared more about the wealthy and the privileged, the athletes and the legacies, than authentic diversity? What did early action have to do with minority students anyway?

In 2007, Yale's Richard Levin said that the primary reason Yale was not going the way of its peer universities [i.e. in getting rid of early] was that they believed the early admissions program did not affect class diversity at all. "To the extent we are concerned that we are not providing enough opportunity for students from low-income families in the first round [of admissions], we can compensate in the second round," Levin said. "Early admissions need not affect the overall demographics of the class."

I concur. Harvard and Princeton, rather than eliminating early, could just have easily publicized their bold financial aid initiatives and encouraged low income/minority students to apply EA (which isn't even binding on the student and therefore does not prohibit students from still applying in regular to other schools and comparing financial aid offers) rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Or they could have simply limited the percentage of students accepted in the early round -- both schools used to take close to 50 percent of the class through early. Rather than eliminating the program, they could have restricted that to 35 percent as many other colleges do. Any deficit in EA minority enrollment could be made up in the regular round and with better marketing, those same applicants could be encouraged to apply EA.

Last year, my Application Boot Camp co-director Mimi Doe and I gave a talk to 250 minority students from New York's REACH program, all of whom would be in the "highly recruitable" minority/low income category at all top colleges. They were shocked at the idea they could apply early decision/action. They had no idea that they would receive just as much financial aid at top colleges in the early round as they would in the regular round even if they compared offers. Not a single student in the room understood that their admissions odds were many times greater in the early round. They assumed early was only for "rich kids" who didn't need any financial aid. Their biggest worry? What if they were accepted into a binding early decision program but didn't get enough aid (though that is very unlikely, since colleges do everything they can to get these students to enroll)?

When we stressed that, in that unlikely scenario, they would be released from the agreement and could apply to regular schools, a light bulb went on. We received dozens of notes months later from students who took our advice and were accepted EA and ED to schools like Columbia, Yale, Dartmouth, Brown, Stanford and MIT (sorry, not at Harvard or Princeton as they didn't have an early option -- oh, the irony).

If admissions officers would simply take the time to spread this message, they'd end up with many more strong minority students in the early rounds. The solution to more minority/low income students is not to eliminate early action. It's to educate students and schools and be transparent about how admissions works, something colleges have never been particularly good at. For the past decade, both in my books and my practice, my goal has been to demystify top college admissions and help families navigate this stressful process. Now that early action and early decision options are back and here to stay -- whatever the schools' motivations -- the process will be that much less stressful.