Harvard toys with admissions policy

This summer, Harvard nearly broke from a long-held tradition of respecting the binding early decision commitments of applicants to other elite colleges in an apparent effort to steal prospective students.

Since the inception of early decision programs about 30 years ago, it has been understood that students who are accepted early decision at one school may not apply to or matriculate at other schools, except for reasons of financial constraint. But on June 7, the Boston Globe reported that Harvard was considering allowing all students to apply and to enroll if admitted — even if they had also been accepted via early decision at another school.

Harvard announced later in the summer, however, that it would continue to uphold the principle of commitment inherent in the binding early decision process.

“It is our expectation that students admitted elsewhere under binding early decision will — not matriculate at Harvard,” a statement released by the university said.

Harvard even went so far as to add a passage to its application materials suggesting that, “regular action might be a better alternative for students who are applying already to a binding early decision college and must withdraw from Harvard (and all other colleges) once admitted.”

The speculation about Harvard’s policy change came after the National Association of College Admissions Counseling published revised guidelines for early admission procedures in 2001. Those guidelines stipulated that applicants could submit an unlimited number of applications to schools with non-binding early action — such as Harvard — along with one binding early decision application. Previously, students who threw in their lot with an early decision application could not also submit early action applications.

Richard Shaw, dean of undergraduate admissions and financial aid at Yale, said he thinks the new NACAC rule will encourage students to put more of their eggs in early baskets. Ultimately, he said, students themselves may suffer as accepted applicants take up places from which they might eventually withdraw. For example, if a student applies to Harvard and Yale and is accepted to both, he will knock out another Harvard hopeful, even though he will have to matriculate at Yale.

“I think there are going to be more applicants in everyone’s pool and that means that more kids are going to be admitted and taking positions,” Shaw said. “Frankly, the better system is that if you go early, you ought to pick one and take your shot.”

The potential Harvard policy change was the latest chapter in a slew of early decision controversies this year. In December, Yale President Richard Levin kicked off the debate when he publically denounced the early decision system as flawed. Harvard could have stirred up the world of admissions even further.

Shaw said he is glad that Harvard decided not to allow students accepted through other schools’ binding early decision programs to matriculate.

“It’d be a bit chaotic,” Shaw said. “So we’re quite appreciative of the decision they made.”

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