Harvard Hampers Admissions at All Top Colleges

If the top colleges want to go back to "normal" levels of applicants and a less frenzied, much fairer process, they need to make a joint decision reset the national standard by adopting binding early decision programs.
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College acceptances, which went out at the end of last month, broke records for the 10th year in a row: Harvard admitted only 6.9%, Stanford 7.2%, Princeton 8.2%, Brown 9.3%, MIT 10.1%, Dartmouth, 11.5%, University of Pennsylvania 14.22%, Duke 14.8%. Those lucky admittees will be deciding where to go; the rest will be stressing out mightily.

Despite these daunting statistics, a handful of extraordinary applicants are now nearly overwhelmed by thick envelopes while many who are merely energetic, merely talented, and merely brilliant have been shut out from the most selective schools.

For this frenzy, we have Harvard to blame. Though Harvard is only one school, as the most selective, sought-after college in the country, its elimination of its early admission program two years ago has sent ripple effects through the entire admissions system.

Two admissions seasons back Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Golden's book The Price of Admission accused Harvard of enabling applicants to "buy" their way in. Golden named names, cited SAT scores, and revealed other lurid information about unqualified students who got into Harvard based on how much money and influence their parents wielded.

Harvard bristled at the accusations and then announced the elimination of its early action program. It did so on the grounds that underprivileged kids were afraid to apply early because they might not get enough financial aid and be caught in a bind over whether to accept Harvard's early offer or hope that the regular round yielded more acceptances and larger offers of aid. The only Ivy that followed suit was Princeton, which terminated its early decision policy.

In the absence of early action at these two sought-after schools, many elite students with No. 1 class rankings, 2400 SAT scores, Intel Science Prizes and national rankings in academic areas realized that to achieve their "dream" of getting into Harvard or Princeton, they couldn't file any binding early applications. Instead, these students applied to nonbinding early action schools - the big five being Stanford, Yale, U Chicago, MIT and Georgetown -- in droves.

Some of those schools experienced a one-year rise of more than 40% and were, in turn, forced to reject or defer record number of fantastic applicants.

Faced with the regular-decision competition, these ambitious but understandably anxious students ended up applying to 15-30 schools in the regular round and in effect clogged up the admissions system. You can imagine how those schools reacted to students of that caliber: in the regular round many of these top students have found themselves in a fortunate vortex in which top colleges are crawling over each other to enroll them, while students who are just marginally below the top tier got shut out from highly selective schools.

Though the admission rates suggest that the applicant pool is stronger and deeper, in reality, the number of high-quality applicants hasn't increased -- it's just the number of applications that's increased.

This small number of early-action rejects just duplicated themselves on paper and buried their backup schools in applications that turn out to be superfluous.

Do Harvard's gatekeepers feel guilty for causing this bottleneck? They don't seem to. Last year they crowed about how low their acceptance rate was. But the process shouldn't be about numbers. It should be about finding and admitting the best, most appropriate students.

If the top colleges want to go back to "normal" levels of applicants and a less frenzied, much fairer process, they need to make a joint decision to adopt a binding early decision programs so that the Ivies and their peers would follow the same policy.

That system would enable the most attractive students to get into their schools of choice in the early round so space for mere mortals would remain in the regular round. To make it fair and not lock out low-income students, these colleges should limit the percentage of early acceptances so ample spots remain in the regular round. At the same time, they should publicize the financial aid policies that often make the most competitive colleges the least expensive to attend.

The nation's elite colleges talk about being equitable but have done nothing to stave off this tide of multiple applications, which hurts students and the colleges alike. With so much frustration this year, it's time to take action rather than sending out press releases about how low their acceptance rates are.

A former assistant director of admissions at Dartmouth College, Michele A. Hernández, Ed.D., is the author of A Is For Admission, Acing the College Application, and, with Mimi Doe, Don't Worry, You'll Get In.

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