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Veritas in admissions

September 16, 2006

THERE ARE A FEW DIRTY LITTLE SECRETS in the college admissions game. Yes, the children of the very wealthy, known in the trade as "development" cases, do get preferential treatment in the hopes that their parents will endow a building or two. Yes, academic standards are often relaxed (or ignored) when it comes to admitting athletes in big-money sports such as football and basketball. And yes, so-called early admissions policies allow universities to improve their standing in national rankings but are unfair to minorities and low-income students.

There's not much hope of righting the first two injustices anytime soon. But Harvard University struck a powerful blow against the third this week. Starting with the class seeking entry in fall 2008, Harvard will end early admissions.

Under this process, the deadline for applications is October or November rather than January. By December, high school seniors usually know if they've been admitted. Many colleges (though not Harvard) insist on an "early decision" system, meaning that those accepted must commit to enrolling.

For the colleges, this is a way of increasing their "yield" -- the percentage of admitted students who actually enroll. Rightly or wrongly, the yield is seen as a measure of a college's quality; if most admitted students choose to enroll, then the school must be desirable. In a backhanded way, early admission also contributes to another key indicator of college quality, selectivity, or the percentage of applicants who are accepted. With early knowledge that it has filled a good portion of its freshman class, a school can afford to be highly selective with later applicants.

Students at schools with active college counselors are more likely to take advantage of early admission or to know it exists. And students who need financial aid often don't apply early because they want to be able to compare aid packages from different colleges. That's why early admission cases are overwhelmingly from high-income families.

In some ways, it's even unfair to the students who take advantage of it. Rather than taking the time to search for the college that is the best fit, they must decide by early fall which school they want to focus on. The college application stress starts months earlier than it should.

As one of the nation's most prestigious universities -- some even put it on par with the great institutions of higher learning in California -- Harvard can afford to ignore its position in national rankings. Others aren't so lucky. But if enough big-name universities follow suit, dumping early admissions could become a sign of prestige. That would put higher education on higher ground.

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