Harvard, Princeton Go Back to Early Admissions

The two Ivies reverse a decision they made in 2006.

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Officials at Harvard University and Princeton University announced Thursday they would return to offering early admissions for prospective students whose first choice is one of the Ivy League schools. Both schools had eliminated their early admissions programs in 2006 for students applying in 2007, saying they provided unnecessary hurdles for economically disadvantaged students.

Both schools will implement nonbinding early action admissions beginning this fall, meaning applicants may only apply early to one school, but will not be committed to attending the school if accepted. This is a change for Princeton, who previously required early applicants to apply early decision, which compelled students to attend the school if accepted.

[See why early applicants are more likely to gain admission.]

Officials from both schools say that during the four years they were without early admissions, the schools missed out on qualified, excited students who wanted to get the college admissions process over with. "We looked carefully at trends in Harvard admissions these past years and saw that many highly talented students, including some of the best-prepared, low-income, and underrepresented minority students, were choosing programs with an early-action option, and therefore were missing out on the opportunity to consider Harvard," Michael Smith, dean of Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences said in a statement.

When Harvard made a move away from early admissions in 2006, then-interim president Derek Bok said the university hoped to make the admissions process "simpler and fairer" for disadvantaged students. "The college admissions process has become too pressured, too complex, and too vulnerable to public cynicism," he said. "Students needing financial aid are disadvantaged by binding early decision programs that prevent them from comparing aid packages."

Harvard, Princeton, and the University of Virginia, which also eliminated early admissions in 2006, hoped other universities would follow suit, but they didn't. With early admissions applications at other universities at record highs, the universities were forced to reinstate their programs (in December, Virginia announced it would return to early admissions.) The colleges found that students who wanted to attend either Harvard or Princeton were sacrificing that chance in order to have a college choice nailed down as early as possible.

[Find 50 colleges with high early admissions rates.]

In a statement, Princeton president Shirley Tilghman said she hopes the move will "provide opportunities for early application for students who know that Princeton is their first choice." Critics of early admissions programs say underprivileged students whose parents and high school counselors aren't aware of early admissions programs are harmed by these programs.

Harvard insists it will spend more money and time reaching out to minority students and underserved high schools to make sure they're aware of the early action program. "We have made significant gains in recent years in recruiting larger numbers of these students and in supporting them for success once here," Harvard College Dean Evelynn Hammonds said in a statement. "The 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 admissions experts aren't sure much has changed since schools moved to a single admission program. Jerome Lucido, executive director of the Center for Enrollment, Research, Policy and Practice at the University of Southern California, said early admissions programs generally favor universities who want to fill out classes as soon as possible. "They benefit institutions more than they benefit students," he said. "We have to take some of the pressure off students. We have a market where students and families think they've lost if they don't get into the absolute best institution. From a system-wide point of view, we underperform."