In 2006, Harvard and Princeton made a bold move: they ended a program that had sustained college admissions for decades.

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They claimed their early admissions policies were leaving behind students at large, underfunded public schools, who often don’t apply early because they may not know about the option or are discouraged from applying early by misinformed counselors. For two Ivy League schools that had placed a large emphasis on recruiting diverse student bodies over the last decade, that gap had become a serious concern.

Yale’s admissions office, under sudden pressure, had to ask itself what fair admissions really looked like.

A few weeks later, the University of Virginia announced they too would end their binding early program. Pressure to follow increased at colleges across the country. But after four months of deliberation, in January 2007, Yale’s admissions office said they were keeping their early plan, and the policy has remained the same ever since.

No other schools followed the three who ended their programs. In 2010, UVA brought back an early plan, this time nonbinding. This February, within two hours of each other, Harvard and Princeton announced they were bringing early admissions back. While Harvard reinstated its old single- choice early action program, Princeton made the switch from a binding to a non-binding early plan.

The statements that followed the return of early admissions were carefully worded. Officials claimed they changed the policy because students were losing a chance to apply early to Harvard when it was their first choice. Harvard College Dean Evelynn Hammonds assured that Harvard’s “commitment to including first-generation, low-income, and historically disadvantaged minority students in the full spectrum of admissions options is a key feature of this new early action option.” But their

statements seemed like an odd contradiction. When Harvard first abandoned its early program, the Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, William Fitzsimmons, told the Harvard Crimson that their move was “certainly a win for students in the bottom quarter and bottom half of the income distribution.” Even Harvard’s then-interim President, Derek Bok, said, “We feel that if anybody is going to step up and take the lead to try to get rid of something which is really doing more harm than good, it’s us.”

Private admissions counselors and high school counselors across the country, including a former Harvard admissions officer, overwhelmingly suspect that Harvard and Princeton felt like they were losing qualified applicants to schools that kept their early programs, including Stanford, MIT, and especially Yale.

This year’s volume of early applications to Yale, released in November, show that changes at other schools have a substantial effect: early applications to Yale fell 18 percent, from 5,217 one year ago to 4,310, while Stanford saw a drop of less than 1 percent. (By contrast, Yale’s numbers had stayed virtually the same the year before.) Yale Dean of Admissions Jeffrey Brenzel says of the newest numbers, “There’s usually no point in speculating about what’s causing small changes in application counts, but it seems pretty obvious that Harvard and Princeton restoring their early admissions programs had a significant effect.”

Now, a week before Harvard and Princeton will admit their first class since the switch, the question of unfairness raised in 2006 still lingers. Harvard and Princeton may have sacrificed their hopes of aiding underprivileged applicants in favor of competing with other schools for the most qualified students. It raises the unsettling possibility that Ivy League schools are choosing competition over greater equality.

“[Harvard and Princeton] really wanted to change the world,” Christopher Avery, a Harvard professor and co-author of “The Early Admissions Game: Joining the Elite” now says. “Obviously, that wasn’t completely sustainable.”

Early programs can become unfair when two very separate processes happen at once. One is that early action provides a slight but real advantage for any applicant, and the other is that wealthier students at private high schools tend to use that advantage more often than the rest of the pool.

But these effects are sometimes misconstrued as a single process, especially at schools with few resources. When Arrice Bryant ’15 was a junior at Renaissance High School in Detroit, MI, a magnet school whose profile lists about a third of its students as “economically disadvantaged,” the school’s counselors told Bryant’s friends that early applications were only for wealthy or legacy students. The counselors even advised one friend of Bryant’s to apply to his favorite school in the regular round, because, they said, if he applied early he “would either get deferred or rejected.” Bryant applied early at the urging of her mother and a coach, and she got in despite the counselors’ advice. (The principal of Renaissance High School, Anita Williams, declined to comment.)

Measuring the objective advantage of applying early for an average applicant is close to impossible. But three Harvard economists spoke with thousands of students, counselors, and admissions officers, and crunched the data to produce a startling conclusion in the 2003 book, “The Early Admissions Game”: applying early gives an applicant an objective advantage that is roughly equivalent to scoring 100 points higher on the old SAT (on the 1600 scale). Yale’s admissions office says it would never admit a student early that could not get in during the regular round. But the authors note that applying early shows some proof of a student’s enthusiasm. Admitting students early also makes more sense for colleges; it allows them to gauge class size more accurately, since even in non-binding programs, many students accept the offer before the regular deadline. Without such estimates, they are forced to make their waitlists larger in May, giving students false hopes. Even though admissions officers would rather not consider those incentives, the book’s data shows that the incentives exert pressure as long as the early program exists.

Harvard claims that its most recent early admissions pool was much more diverse than the early pool four years ago. But Princeton President Shirley Tilghman said in 2006 that early applicant pools in general are less diverse, and Yale President Richard Levin confirmed that Yale’s early round often attracts more affluent students from better resourced and often private high schools. He added in an interview last month that Yale’s early programs themselves were not unfair.

“The Early Admissions Game” also found a gap along race lines. After collecting data from 14 of the most selective colleges around the year 2000, the authors found that just under 12 percent of African American applicants and 13.5 percent of Hispanic applicants applied early action; conversely, 20 percent of all applicants apply early action.

The demonstrated inequalities in early admissions meant that Yale’s admissions office faced a tough decision after Harvard and Princeton dropped their early programs. According to Brenzel, Yale admissions officers read Avery’s book and “studied it carefully.” But Levin said in an interview that Yale’s data on the advantages of early was not as pronounced as the book claimed, and it was too hard to measure variables like a parent’s interest in higher education.

With these issues in mind, Yale’s admissions hoped they could address any disparities in early action with other measures. “Because our program [is] non- binding and our financial aid extraordinarily generous, our early program was attracting more and more of the country’s best minority and low-income applicants,” Brenzel told the News in an email at the time. “It was working very well for us and for those students as well.”

But whether or not it was intentional on the part of Yale admissions, several counselors noted that by keeping their program, Yale attracted students who would have applied early to Harvard or Princeton. In the first year after Harvard and Princeton disbanded their early programs, Yale’s early volume jumped 36 percent. Jon Reider, director of college counseling at San Francisco University High School and a Stanford admissions officer from 1985 to 2000, says that when those schools first undid their early programs, Stanford “just licked its lips and said, ‘We’re gonna make out like bandits.’ I don’t think Stanford had even a brief internal debate about this — they kept it and sailed on.” Reached by email, Stanford Dean of Undergraduate Admissions and Financial Aid, Richard Shaw, says, “We certainly did not ‘lick our lips’ because, in fact, we were not locking anyone into a commitment until they were able to consider all their options through the early and regular cycles.”

Suddenly, Yale had months to court its most qualified applicants before Harvard and Princeton could admit them. While all counselors do not agree whether or not this actually happens, Sean Logan, a former Harvard admissions officer, said he noticed it while reading applications for Harvard’s Class of 2015. Logan spoke with four successful applicants who knew they had been admitted elsewhere in December. He claims that their admission to Harvard months later, in April, caught them off-guard, even if Harvard was originally their top choice at the beginning of the process.

One student from Europe, who was one of Logan’s “favorite kids in the pool,” got into Yale early and saw the campus in February on his gap year. But when he got into his original choice, Harvard, he visited in a rushed weekend when a decision was looming in a few weeks. He finally chose Yale, partly citing the timing. Logan feels sure that if Harvard had an early policy, the student would have used it, gotten in, and matriculated there instead. “He told me his first choice was Harvard the summer before, and Yale won him over,” Logan says. (Both Harvard and Princeton’s admissions offices declined to comment for this article.)

Logan, who was not involved in the discussions for Harvard’s new early plan, emphasizes this scenario was rare, but still could cause shifts in policy. “If it’s 15 kids, it’s 15 kids,” he says. “But [colleges] don’t want to lose out.”

If Harvard and Princeton brought back their early programs to compete with schools like Yale, it would make perfect sense in the light of history. The programs were supposed to help schools gauge their class sizes in the post-World War II rise in college attendance, but quickly became a way to strategically accept the best students early. This worked in part because students wouldn’t think as much about other schools when an offer was sitting right in front of them. These strategies began as early as 1954 with the “A-B-C” system, which let Harvard, Yale and Princeton admit students from feeder schools early and on a separate scale from general applicants. It graded those students with an “A,” or near-certain acceptance, “B,” maybe, or “C,” rejection. When Yale and Princeton dropped their programs while Harvard kept its, Yale President Kingman Brewster Jr., in a 1966 Yale Alumni Magazine article, called the system both unfair to students who did not come from those feeder schools and unfair to Yale and Princeton because a student with a nod from Harvard would be likely to withdraw their other applications. Harvard’s dean of admissions countered with an argument that schools still use today: “If you’re really careful about [accepting] fellows you’re absolutely sure will be admitted in the spring, there’s nothing at all unfair about it.”

The competition only increased in the early 1990s, when students started realizing that early programs actually brought an advantage. Admission rates have since plunged and financial aid has expanded, but the competitive consequences of early policies at Ivy League schools remain the same. The return of Harvard and Princeton’s early programs mark only the latest phase of what has been a 60-year arms race over early admissions. “After doing the research, we’re really in the same world,” Avery says.

Yale’s admissions office stood firm by the early plan because it claimed the policy disadvantaged no one, and that any differences between their early and regular pools reflect national issues with education that one Ivy League school cannot fix. Yale removed its binding early decision policy in 2002 to address similar inequalities. Binding early programs, administrators said, were unfair, since a student accepted with a binding policy cannot compare financial aid offers from other schools. (A student can still decline an early decision offer if a family can’t meet that school’s financial aid package.) Since 2002, Yale’s policy has been “single- choice early action:” it does not require a student to matriculate, but it does prevent a student from applying to other schools early.

“To the extent you can, you want to give students the right to choose,” Brenzel says. “The point of [single-choice early action] is to allow a student to put a chip on the table for the school he or she would most like to attend. If a student is admitted there, great. If not, it helps to focus a student on broadening the search.” Brenzel adds that Yale’s early program is not designed to give an advantage to any applicant. “We’re going to get our share of the world’s most qualified students,” he says. “If you can afford to offer an early admission without binding the student, you should do it.”

But after Yale switched to a non-binding plan, Levin said he was disappointed that more schools didn’t follow: apart from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, every Ivy League school offers early decision. “I thought it would be the kind of liberalization that would benefit everyone,” he says, “and it didn’t turn out that way.”

Yale decided it was doing the best that it reasonably can in an entrenched admissions world. “Realistically,” Levin says, “we are going to have [early programs] with us. Making it available in a non-binding program is probably the best solution, so I think it’s good that Harvard and Princeton have come to that conclusion.”

The still-larger problem, Levin says, lies in public education. The scope of what one Ivy League school can do seems uncannily small in a national debate about teaching students equally. “The real issue in America is not whether colleges admit people fairly. The issue is that public schools are not performing up to their potential,” Levin says. “We don’t have as many kids from low-income families getting the preparation that they need. That’s a big social problem that requires public resources and a major social commitment.” He adds, “We try to find these kids. We do what we can. The issue is much better addressed through public schools, and not through tinkering with admissions policies at Ivy League schools.”

Now that early policies are the same at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford, it is unclear whether bringing back an early policy at the expense of applicant diversity was worth the boost in competition.

In February, when Harvard and Princeton announced their new programs, college counselors thought Yale would lose a serious advantage. Private counselor Amy Sack told the Harvard Crimson in [March], “I think this will be the most earth-shattering for Yale.” Dean Brenzel and President Levin both say that Yale probably benefited somewhat from the few years when Yale had a larger early pool, but added that the difference had only had a small effect on who ultimately arrived at Yale each fall.

Yet after early applications to Yale dipped 18 percent, that shift is quietly reflected in high schools across the country. Though private high schools declined to share specific numbers of students applying to any one school, Logan, the former Harvard admissions officer who now serves as the director of college counseling at Phillips Academy Andover, says the number of early applications Andover students sent to Stanford and Yale dipped noticeably. Other schools saw little or no change — college counselors at Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford, Conn., as well as the Lawrenceville School in Lawrenceville, N.J. and Bronx High School of Science in Bronx, N.Y. all saw little change in who was applying to each school early. If any shift in these applicants exists, it is small.

But at Roxbury Latin School, which is known for sending large numbers of students to Harvard, the transition was extreme. Roxbury Latin has a policy to address the competition of early action: even in non-binding programs, its students are required to accept early admission offers. The policy assures schools like Yale and Stanford that Roxbury Latin applicants do not see their school as a second choice.

But now that Harvard and Princeton have early plans again, the school’s director of college counseling, Tom Walsh, says that the share of the school’s 50 seniors applying early surged from below 50 percent early to about 86 percent. A lot of that jump is “absolutely” due to the new early programs — “We predicted it would have a fairly dramatic effect,” he says.

Former Stanford admissions officer Jon Reider claims that shifts in early programs are just another effect of unnecessary Ivy competition. “There’s enough good kids to go around. But [colleges] don’t act that way. They act as if there are only so many good kids to fill their class. And I think that’s conceited. I don’t think that’s true.” Of his time at Stanford admissions, Reider says, “I was a heretic. Everyone wanted more applications. I just wanted the right kids to apply. What I did not realize was that I was a businessman.”

Richard Shaw, Stanford Dean of Admissions, said in an email that Stanford wants to provide the right information to students, but is not trying to simply increase the number of applications. As to whether Yale is too competitive about its applicants, Levin says, “We’ve tried to make decisions about our policy in ways that take into account the welfare of the students, but we’re going to get exceptional students no matter what.”

Misinformation about the early application process is still a national problem. David Hawkins, director of public policy and research for the National Association of College Admissions Counseling, witnessed this disparity firsthand when he spoke with high school counselors of low-income students in New York. He was surprised at how many didn’t know that a student could easily withdraw from an early decision program if the student couldn’t meet the cost of tuition — in fact, many of them thought that disadvantaged students simply shouldn’t apply early. “It’s incumbent upon colleges to determine how publicized those [early and financial aid] policies are,” Hawkins says. “But to hear counselors tell it, it sounds like it isn’t happening in a way that’s as broad based as we hope.”

For counselors at public high schools who are often responsible for hundreds of students, the details of early plans can get lost. Connie Loggins, a counselor at Long Beach Polytechnic High School, oversees 700 of the school’s approximately 5,000 students. She and doesn’t see any clear way for overworked counselors to correct widespread misinformation. “I think [colleges] are doing the best they can to get the information to us,” she says. “[But] you don’t always have time to dig for it.” Loggins notes that counselors can’t do it all themselves — “Until the student realizes that information is relevant to them, they’re not going tohearit…Theonusisonthe student to follow through.”

Shannon Wilson, a coordinator for advanced classes at West High School in Salt Lake City, Utah, is also unsure of how much help she can be to her students. West High School has just over 2500 students. Some 200 students drop out or transfer between freshman and senior year, and about 60 percent of the students qualify for free lunch. Despite these hardships, one or two students every year in the last three years have gone to Stanford, Princeton, and Yale, and about three each year are given help through Questbridge, a nonprofit that helps prepare disadvantaged students and link them to colleges.

Wilson hopes she is doing what she can to speak with disadvantaged students who need help with college applications, but she isn’t allowed to know which students get federal aid out of privacy concerns. So she meets with kids as frequently as she can and hopes that if any of them really need help, they will let her know. “I need to pay more attention,” she says. “It’s paying attention and noticing who those kids are.”

Wilson adds that the problem of misinformation cannot be solved through colleges’ outreach efforts. A visit from an admissions officer from a faraway state that students have never been to can be far more uncomfortable than useful. Even though the officers are trying to help, Wilson points out that her interested students will likely be afraid to ask about financial aid details, because their questions might reveal how little they know about the admissions process. “[College information] is more important coming from people they know than universities that swoop in and try to tell people to make a decision, and say, ‘This is the best thing for you,’” Wilson says.

But Wilson still deals with misinformation on a local scale. Every year she sees many students who are confused about the early process; about ten show her the early acceptance rates for their favorite schools and wish they had known to apply then.

She knows that applying early most likely would have delivered the same outcome. But, she says, “They feel as if the world might have looked different if they had acted sooner.”

CORRECTION: Dec. 10, 2011

An earlier version of this article misspelled Anita Williams’ name.