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Posted at 11:45 AM ET, 02/24/2011

Harvard, Princeton return to early admission

By Daniel de Vise

Here's some big news in Ivy League admissions: Harvard and Princeton are going back to nonbinding early action, an early admission option that is sometimes deemed fairer to students than binding early decision.

Most of the nation's top colleges have some form of early admission. Under early decision, favored by Penn and Cornell, you commit to apply only to that school, and if you are accepted you promise to attend. Under early action, preferred by Stanford and Yale, you agree not to apply early anywhere else, but you are not obliged to attend.

The top colleges retreated from early admissions in the past decade, driven by concern that the program was unfair to students, put them under too much pressure and was doubly unfair to the low-income families that didn't necessarily even know of the option.

In 2002, both Stanford and Yale eased the terms of their early admission programs so that students they accepted early were no longer required to attend. That put them in the same camp with Harvard, which had nonbinding early action rather than binding early decision. Princeton retained early decision -- for a while.

In 2006, Princeton and Harvard ended early admission completely, declaring it unfair to disadvantaged students. U-Va. followed suit.

Now, Harvard and Princeton join Stanford and Yale with a non-binding early action program. Students who apply early to either school cannot apply anywhere else. That caveat ensures that the schools get a high yield of admitted students who choose to attend. U-Va. recently announced its own return to early action, with an important distinction: students who apply there are free to apply elsewhere.

"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," said Drew Faust, Harvard president, as quoted in the Harvard Gazette. "Over the past several years, however, interest in early admissions has increased, as students and families from across the economic spectrum seek certainty about college choices and financing."

Harvard admissions folks looked at trends and concluded that some highly talented students were choosing early action programs elsewhere, potentially weakening Harvard's pool.

Harvard also announced that it would increase undergraduate financial aid to more than $160 million next year. (Is that the highest sum dedicated to that purpose at any college?)

The move may be motivated partly by disappointment at Harvard and Princeton (and, formerly, U-Va.) that other schools didn't follow their lead in backing off from early admission.

Princeton President Shirley M. Tilghman said, "in eliminating our early program four years ago, we hoped other colleges and universities would do the same and they haven't. One consequence is that some students who really want to make their college decision as early as possible in their senior year apply to other schools early, even if their first choice is Princeton."

Other presidents have told me their schools simply couldn't afford to forego early admission. The program fills up a crucial part of the incoming class months ahead of time, spreads out the work of the harried admission office, and brings in busloads of students who claim your college as their first choice. Early admission is also a tool for some schools to bring in more affluent students, because some programs operate outside the "need-blind" admissions policies many of the top universities have adopted.

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By Daniel de Vise  | February 24, 2011; 11:45 AM ET
Categories:  Access, Admissions, Aid  | Tags:  Harvard admissions, Ivy League admissions, Princeton admissions, early action, early admission, early decision  
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