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Harvard restores early admissions after 4-year halt

Switch aims to stop loss of sought-after students

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By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / February 25, 2011

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Harvard College, retreating from an ambitious effort to transform the stress-filled college admissions process, announced yesterday that it will resume allowing high school students to apply early and find out just months into their senior year whether they have been accepted.

Four years ago, Harvard became the first selective university in the nation to eliminate its early admissions program. It sought to reduce pressure on high school students and eliminate a perceived advantage for students from affluent families. Harvard anticipated that other universities would do the same, but few followed suit, leaving the school at a competitive disadvantage.

“There has been a greater and greater sense on the part of students that they really wanted certainty about their college choice earlier than before,’’ said William Fitzsimmons, Harvard’s dean of admissions and financial aid. “We did not want to be in a position where we would be, in a sense, turning off people who would be great at Harvard.’’

Harvard will reinstate early admissions this fall, for students applying to join the class of 2016. Unlike most other universities with early admissions programs, Harvard will not obligate students accepted early to attend.

The Harvard announcement marks a significant about-face in the competitive world of college admissions. Princeton, which had joined Harvard four years ago in eliminating early admission, waited just an hour after Harvard’s statement to say that it, too, would reinstate the option. The University of Virginia, another elite school that had dropped early admission, announced in November that it would resume the program.

The universities have been losing sought-after students to other schools that continued to offer early admissions, such as Stanford and Yale. Fitzsimmons said he has heard anecdotes about students from a diverse array of backgrounds who wanted to come to Harvard but were heavily recruited by schools with early admissions programs and ended up committing elsewhere.

In many high schools, Fitzsimmons said, 60 to 80 percent of students apply early to college.

“This syndrome has almost created a frenzy in many secondary schools,’’ he said. “So many students forget about the importance of the match and are focused on just getting the process over with as soon as they can.’’

In moving to a single application deadline in 2007, Harvard officials said they had hoped to make admissions simpler and fairer. At the time, university officials said that talented students from modest economic backgrounds, rural areas, and foreign countries tended not to apply early because of a lack of advising and confusion about the college admissions process.

In the four years since Harvard abandoned early admissions, the size of its applicant pool has jumped to record highs, and the number of freshmen from families making less than $80,000 has increased. But, the university says, many talented students, including those from low-income and underrepresented minority backgrounds, continue to choose other colleges with early admissions programs.

Harvard professor Richard Zeckhauser, coauthor of the book “The Early Admissions Game,’’ said yesterday that the university was bound to back away from the abolition of early admissions when it became clear that competitors were not following suit.

“Having Harvard and Princeton get rid of early admissions and having our principal competitors retain it is the equivalent of unilateral disarmament,’’ Zeckhauser said. “There is too much of a disadvantage of being just one of two or three schools among the elite schools not to offer a program that all the other schools offer.’’

During the years that it has not had an early admissions program, Harvard has been quietly pledging likely admission to about 300 students a year — or nearly a fifth of the freshman class — under a longtime Ivy League program to recruit athletes and exceptional students facing pressure to accept offers from other colleges.

Harvard officials said that as the university reintroduces early admissions, it will increase its emphasis on recruiting a diverse pool of students. The university also plans to enhance its admissions website to offer detailed advice on applying to college and to install a financial aid calculator so students will have a sense upfront how much a Harvard education would cost them.

More than a quarter of the current freshman class now qualifies for a scholarship that covers nearly all of their costs, and more than 60 percent of Harvard undergraduates receive need-based aid, Fitzsimmons said.

“We’re hoping to really level the playing field, to the extent that is possible in an unlevel-playing-field world, so that students from modest and middle-income backgrounds would have the same access to early programs that everyone else does,’’ he said.

Harvard’s president, Drew Faust, said the school remains committed to structuring the early admissions program to maximize access for students from all socioeconomic backgrounds.

“We piloted the elimination of early action out of concern that college admissions had become too complex and pressured for all students, and out of particular concern for students at under-resourced high schools who might not be able to access the early admissions process,’’ Faust said in a written statement. “Our goal now is to reinstitute an early-action program consistent with our bedrock commitment to access, affordability, and excellence.’’

Under the early admissions program, students who apply by Nov. 1 will be notified by Dec. 15 of their status — whether admitted, rejected, or deferred for consideration with the regular pool of applicants. The deadline for regular applicants remains Jan. 1, with university responses issued April 1. All admitted students will have until May 1 to decide whether to enroll.

In the past, students who applied early to Princeton and the University of Virginia were obligated to attend if admitted. Under their renewed early admissions programs, admitted students would no longer be bound to the universities.

Yale and Stanford also have nonbinding early admissions programs. But early applicants admitted to Cornell, Columbia, Dartmouth, Brown, and the University of Pennsylvania must promise to attend.

Some college counselors welcomed Harvard’s and Princeton’s decisions, since more students are seeking early admissions options. Nearly a third of the senior class at Newton North High School had applied to a college by Nov. 1, said Brad MacGowan, a college counselor.

“With all the pressure and the uncertainty around college admissions, applying early gives them a little control,’’ said MacGowan. “They like the idea they can let a college know that it is their top choice.’’

Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com.