Area Colleges Not Ready to Take Harvard's Path

Thursday, September 14, 2006 - 15:44
This article ran in the Daily Hampshire Gazette on Wednesday, September 13, 2006.

By Kristin Palpini

Harvard University's decision to end its early admission program in 2007 is great for Harvard, but western Massachusetts' institutes of higher education aren't Harvard, say local college officials, who have no immediate plans to follow the university's example.

"We need to look at the decision in context of all colleges and universities," said Debra Shaver, director of admissions at Smith College, in a prepared statement.

Early admissions programs have long been faulted in higher education circles for overlooking low-income and minority students. Critics say these students often lack the guidance to pursue this option and the cash to gamble on financial aid. Students who apply for early admission must often sign a contract stating that they will not apply to other colleges through early admission and that they will enroll if accepted, which eliminates their ability to shop around for the best financial aid package.

On Tuesday Harvard announced it will drop its long-standing early admission program, which allowed students the first crack at enrollment and the opportunity to compete in a smaller pool of candidates by completing their applications by the fall. Students are informed whether they are accepted around December.

Early admissions programs benefit colleges by locking in top students and shoring up enrollment numbers for the following academic year. With the number of applications to colleges on the rise, forecasting enrollment numbers for incoming freshmen classes is becoming an exceedingly difficult task and putting more emphasis on the early admissions program, said Joyce E. Smith, executive director of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling.

"If they have 20-30 percent of their class confirmed through early applications, then they can start looking at recruiting more minorities, or women, or whatever to round out the class," Smith said.

Local college officials say they cannot afford to relinquish their ability to secure students early on. Because Harvard is among the top schools in the country, the university does not have to worry about students being accepted and then declining to enroll.

"I think there are few colleges in Harvard's position in the marketplace," Shaver said in an email interview Tuesday.

"Harvard can do whatever they want and still wind up with an unbelievably well-qualified pool of students," said Kevin Kelly, director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Massachusetts.

As Harvard is stepping out of the early admissions game, UMass is stepping in. This year, for the first time, UMass accepted 'early action' students. The new, nonbinding, program is an effort by the university to attract students with strong academics.

"A lot of kids are interested in early application options," Kelly said. "I think it's conventional wisdom that students applying through early action programs are students who are better prepared for college. They're looking early on and have all their materials ready, and basically they've been that way throughout school."

UMass enrolled 650 students through the program this year. Students were informed early on of their acceptance status, but were allowed to commit to the university at the same time as regular applicants.

According to a Tuesday article in the New York Times, Harvard decided to drop its early admissions program because of the biases the program presents. Students who are more affluent and sophisticated were the most likely to apply for early admission, the article said.

"A lot of students in poor neighborhoods and poor schools may not have the strong counselors there to guide them according to the early admission schedule," Smith said.

Discussions about the biases of early admissions have been around for years. Jane Brown, dean of enrollment at Mount Holyoke College, said the implications of the early admission program have fueled a running debate on campus. She expects the Harvard decision will animate the discussion, but does not anticipate any large-scale changes.

Brown pointed out that Mount Holyoke College's early admission applicants account for less than 25 percent of the school's enrollment. Other area colleges had similarly low early application enrollment numbers, with UMass reporting 15 percent of this year's freshmen class enrolling though early action and Hampshire College reporting about 12 percent of its students are accepted through the binding early decision application.

Brown said early admission is more of a problem for the highly competitive Ivy League schools, some of which garner 50 percent of their enrollment through early applications.

"This isn't quite a central kind of component at our admissions as it has become at some of the Ivy League schools," Brown said. "I think in general most colleges applaud the Harvard decision, though."

Smith said she anticipates colleges and universities around the country will continue to offer early admission programs, but will keep Harvard's decision in mind.

"I don't think other institutions will immediately follow on the bandwagon," Smith said. "They're not all Harvard. They're not all as well endowed and do not have the institutions name or reputation."

"People from China know the name Harvard," said Smith, "but they may not know about a good institute in Ohio."

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