Sometimes someone does something so obvious, so smart, but so out-of-character that it takes you aback. Today, reading that Harvard decided to end its early admissions program, I enjoyed one of those moments. Early admissions benefits borderline students because many schools have higher admit rates for students willing to apply early (Penn famously admits half of its class early decision – around 1200 students out of 3500. Regular decision candidates compete for a further 2400 admits, but against a pool of around 18,000 candidates). Students like it because they think they have better chances of admission, and also because they can be finished with the college search by mid-December. Schools like early admission because it lets them increase their yield rates and pick students specially interested in the school. However, this unfairly benefits marginal students who’ve made up their minds at the expense of better qualified students in the regular pool that haven’t decided on a college. Furthermore, as the Harvard admissions officers noted, lower-income students could not compare financial aid packages if they committed to a school early. By making everyone apply regular decision, everyone is judged against the same standard.
This is bad news for parents eager to do anything to get their kids to an Ivy, but good news for bright lower-income students who deserve to go to the best schools. Early admissions increase the odds that a wealthy marginal child will get admitted.
I think Penn should end its early decision program and judge everyone in the applicant pool against the same standard. Penn admits half its class early, partly to keep its yield rate high, and partly to reward students who are committed to Penn. The admissions department must recognize that its reasons for wanting to keep the yield rate high – to attract more applicants in coming years, and to maintain a high ranking in US News & World Report studies – are flawed. Penn’s admissions goal should be to attract the nation’s (and increasingly, the world’s) best and brightest students to campus, in all races, genders, and income levels. It has taken a step toward this by switching to the Common Application, which decreases the time-cost to lower-income students who want to apply to Penn. It could take a step further by reducing the influence of the SAT, a test which has proven racist and coachable, and by ending its early admissions program.