While Fitzsimmons and Deacon may be old friends and associates – the two travel around the country together along with colleagues from other universities leading information sessions for prospective students – they don’t always agree on everything. Harvard’s recent announcement only highlighted the gap that has emerged between the two admissions directors over early admissions.

Advantages the Advantaged?

Harvard’s groundbreaking decision to abandon its early admissions program beginning next fall highlighted what many university administrators across the country have described as an inherent inequality in early admissions and put the future of early admissions, which has been a staple of the nation’s top schools for nearly four decades, in question.

In the weeks after Harvard’s decision – which takes effect for the incoming class of 2012 – Princeton University and the University of Virginia followed suit. But other top universities have resisted the change.

Fitzsimmons said that he made his decision after considering the impact that early admissions programs have historically had on low-income prospective students. He said that any program designed to admit some students before the regular application deadline “advantages the advantaged.”

Harvard’s program is early action, meaning that students can apply and be accepted before the regular application deadline, but are not bound to attend if they are accepted.

Although the program was initially seen as beneficial for students who needed to wait until the regular admissions notification date of April 1 to compare financial aid packages, Harvard’s early acceptance rate – 21 percent last year compared to 9 percent regular – was significantly higher than its regular acceptance rate, enough so that Fitzsimmons said it made getting into Harvard early seem easier than getting in during the regular admission period. He said that students who have applied for early admission have generally had advantages like access to personal counselors and tutors.

“Only the more sophisticated students and families look behind the label of `early admission’ and distinguish early action from binding early decision programs,” Fitzsimmons said. “Thus students from less-advantaged backgrounds either fail to take advantage of early admission because they are less well-advised overall, or they consciously avoid our program on the mistaken assumption that they will be unable to compare financial aid packages.”

Deacon, however, said that while some early admissions programs benefit more privileged students, Harvard overreacted by eliminating the program entirely.

“Harvard wants to make a dramatic change,” he said.

For Deacon, making the “dramatic change” of eliminating early action is unnecessary. For him, an early admissions program, with its overall benefits of less student stress and an early indication of the class for the admissions office, can be fair. It all lies in the comparison between the percentage of early applicants admitted and the percentage of regular applicants admitted.

The Percentage Gap

Georgetown, unlike most of its peer institutions, including Harvard, has admitted the same percentage of its early-admissions applicants as it has regular regular-admissions applicants since it initiated its early admissions program. When Georgetown began early admissions in 1969, about half of early applicants were accepted – the same rate of those who applied in the regular pool. While Georgetown has become more selective in the past 38 years, its commitment to retaining the same rate for both early and regular admissions has not wavered. Last year, the university admitted 22 percent of applicants in both the early and regular cycles.

Deacon said that keeping the acceptance rate the same eliminates any unfair advantages.

“We certainly support the principle [Harvard is] addressing in their decision to eliminate a program that they think disadvantages certain populations,” Deacon said. “But [I] think it is unlikely we will feel the need to change.”

Although early and regular applicants have the same acceptance rate at Georgetown, early applicants have traditionally had slightly higher SAT scores and GPAs. Deacon said that this does not disadvantage qualified applicants, though, because no early applicants are rejected, only deferred to the regular pool. Typically, about 15 percent of deferred applicants are later accepted.

Deacon also said that there is a risk of disadvantaging regular applicants by accepting a higher percentage of applicants early.

“If you overreact early, you preclude the case of admitting interesting people regular,” Deacon said.

B ecause Georgetown’s program is non-binding, applicants have until May 1 – after they have been informed of regular decision acceptances at other universities – to decide whether or not they want to matriculate at Georgetown. Deacon said that this benefits students in need of financial aid because it affords them time to compare financial offers from other schools.

University President John J. DeGioia echoed Deacon’s commitment to the university’s early action program, adding that programs at other universities that admit a higher percentage of students early benefit privileged applicants.

“I think it’s terrific news that Harvard and Princeton have abandoned their policy,” he said. “We’re very comfortable with where we are, and we intend to continue that.”

Others Weigh In

At other schools, solving the problem of early admissions while still attracting low-income and minority students takes a different route. At the University of Pennsylvania, for instance, administrators said that early decision – a binding program in which students must attend Penn if accepted early – has proven beneficial to both applicants and the university.

Before Penn began its early-decision program, Willis Stetson, Jr., Penn’s admissions dean, said that for many students, Penn was a second- or third-choice school. Some of the students who matriculated were therefore not as passionate about the university. Thanks to its binding early-decision program, however, Stetson estimated that Penn is now the first choice of 80 percent of applicants. According to Stetson, Penn’s early-decision candidates tend to have higher grades and be more involved in extracurricular activities. The result is often a more dynamic campus, he said.

Additionally, the number of minority early applicants has increased since Penn instituted its early decision program.

“It has changed the tone of our campus to have an early program,” Stetson said. “We feel it’s worked for us and we’re going to keep it.”

Deacon has never liked early decision, though, because it does not allow students -specifically those in need of financial aid – to compare offers from others schools. Penn also has a much higher acceptance rate for its early program than for regular admissions; approximately 30 percent of early applicants and 18 percent of regular applicants are admitted.

Yale’s early admissions policy is just like Harvard’s – single-choice early action. According to Yale President Rick Levin, though, Yale will not be eliminating its early admissions program anytime soon.

“It is true that the percentage awarded financial aid is lower in the early pool – 37 percent versus 48 percent,” Levin said in an interview with The Yale Alumni agazine. “But we are only choosing half the class in the early round. We shape the class in the second round, and to the extent we are concerned that we are not providing enough opportunity for students from low-income families in the first round, we can compensate in the second round.”

Last year, Yale admitted approximately 18 percent of early applicants and only 8 percent of regular applicants.

Stress Factors

Deacon said that while he agrees largely with the principle behind Harvard’s decision, he thinks that early admissions is an important program because it helps relieve stress for college applicants who are admitted to their first-choice school in December.

Fitzsimmons, on the other hand, contends that it is far better for students to have a longer period of time to consider where they want to go to school. He said that it is essential for students to base this decision not just on an early program or on financial aid, but on actual fit.

“I think a long engagement isn’t bad,” he said. “I think the senior year is a time of enormous growth.”

Stetson agreed with Deacon, saying that if other schools continue to eliminate their early programs, it may mean higher stress for prospective students. For him, eliminating early admissions will certainly not decrease the high level of stress associated with the college admissions process.

“The frenzy we don’t believe will be helped by Harvard waiting until April 1 with a 9 percent accept rate,” Stetson said.

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