Before taking a lead, Yale needs to catch up

Just when we finally convince ourselves that the T-shirts are right and Princeton doesn’t matter, they make the kind of leap our own administration has been talking about for five years.

Of course, Princeton officials had reportedly been considering such a move at least since President Shirley Tilghman took the job in 2001. Perhaps not coincidentally, this was mere months before Yale President Richard Levin publicly denounced early admissions in an interview with The New York Times. But in any event, many questions of the last five years were answered with Tilghman’s announcement on Monday afternoon — and suddenly, Levin and the rest of Yale’s administration have two new ones to consider.

The first question is whether Yale can afford to ignore its stated, legitimate concern: namely, that its early admissions program is by no means inherently flawed. There is no question that it pays to apply early, but as a seemingly changed Levin suggested last week, the true answer to increasing low-income enrollment lies in an increased effort to inform students from low-income families of the options at their disposal, and in consistently increasing financial aid in order to improve those options. Scapegoating early admissions as a tool for legacies or the otherwise “advantaged,” to borrow Tilghman’s phrase, is no solution to either problem.

But in the wake of Harvard’s and Princeton’s announcements, the second question — whether Yale can afford not to stand with its two top competitors — is just as important. This might seem counter-intuitive: Certainly, Yale’s early admissions numbers will benefit without competition from its fiercest perennial rivals. Its yield will almost certainly improve. The pool of students to which Yale already caters will grow deeper earlier. But when it comes to low-income recruiting, Yale has just been left sitting in the shallow end.

Merits and flaws aside, Yale’s early admissions program has just been rendered largely obsolete. The nonbinding, single-choice early action deadline has just become virtually meaningless to students applying to the nation’s top three schools. Early admissions only worked for Yale while its prime competition played by roughly the same rules. Now, Yale just has an earlier deadline, and stands by a system its competitors call corrupt. The system is down.

Yale has lost the power to set the agenda. The anticipated meritocratic value of Harvard’s and Princeton’s moves alone has cast a shadow over our own program. Yale may well have been planning a similar move for years — Levin was certainly thinking about it in 2002, when he asked the Justice Department if such a simultaneous action would be legal — but one thing is certain: Yale can no longer afford to spend a year deliberating on early admissions, as Levin said he expected to after Harvard’s announcement.

As we said Monday, damage control and leadership need not be mutually exclusive. There remains plenty of room for Yale to make good on its stated commitments to education and financial aid. But the University now has little choice but to join its peers before it can lead the charge to truly extend the promise of the Ivy League to the less advantaged. Only if we take that lead can we convince them, and not just ourselves, that no other school really matters.

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