Opinion: Real Admissions Reform

by David Rutenberg

On September 12, Harvard University announced that starting with the fall 2007 cycle, it would drop its early admission program, instead opting for a unitary system with only one application due date. The school argued that this would equalize the admissions process between economically advantaged applicants and their not-so-advantaged peers, who have neither the financial resources to commit to an early admission program, nor the knowledge networks to take advantage of the increased probability of admission that these programs offer. Despite the good intentions, this decision will have a minimal impact on college enrollment for the targeted populations because it does little to help students become educated about college and the admissions process in general.

In a statement released by the university, Harvard Interim President Derek Bok noted, “Early admission programs tend to advantage the advantaged … Students from more sophisticated backgrounds and affluent high schools often apply early to increase their chance of admissions, while minority students and students from rural areas, other countries, and high schools miss out.”

The university hopes that its move will inspire other universities to follow its lead. However, so far the only school to respond has been Princeton University, which said that it too would drop its early admission program starting in the fall of 2007. Many in the media jumped on the story, hailing Harvard for its courage to drop the program and to do its part to bring more equality to a highly unequal process.

By going on record and acknowledging the obvious issues of college access for students of less-privileged backgrounds, Harvard and Princeton committed themselves to attempting to solve the problem of college access. More specifically, the dropping of early admission shows official recognition that students from economically depressed backgrounds do not have the same knowledge networks and social capital that their more “sophisticated” and wealthy counterparts enjoy. This acceptance, however, commits schools like Harvard to resolve the problem of college access at its roots, by strengthening knowledge networks, rather then through a topical approach like eliminating early admission. Though this is not a legal issue, it certainly is a moral one.

A knowledge network – as it is used here – is the amalgamation of sources that students can use to learn about the college admissions process, test taking, financial aid, and the whole body of knowledge that applicants can leverage to increase their chances of admission to college. These include friends and siblings who have been through the admissions process, college-educated parents, school counselors, private admissions consultants, test-prep classes and readily available Internet access.

Students who do not have access to information about college admissions (including the early admission option), test preparation, and financial aid are at a distinct disadvantage. Many universities accept a large percentage of their entering classes during the early admission cycle, binding students to whatever financial aid they are offered. Princeton accepted nearly 50 percent of this year’s incoming class early. Moreover, Harvard accepted 21 percent of its early applicants to the class of 2010, while only accepting 9.3 percent of its regular applicants.

As iconic as Harvard and Princeton may be, they can only accept about 2,500 students each year between them – too few to make a serious impact on college access. Also, schools that receive such large numbers of applicants do not risk much by dropping their early admissions programs because they are guaranteed many more applicants than they can accept. Other highly competitive schools, like Stanford University and the University of Pennsylvania, refuse to drop their early admissions programs, suggesting that if they cannot afford the sacrifice, few others will be able to either. Simply put, early admissions programs at schools like Pennsylvania and Stanford guarantee them top quality students that may have matriculated instead at schools like Harvard and Princeton if they were not locked in. Pennsylvania accepted over 30 percent of applicants to its class of 2010, admitting close to a third of those who applied early, while accepting only about 18 percent of those who used the standard admissions option.

Even if disadvantaged students get accepted to college, they have to stay well informed on the tangle of scholarships, grants, and aid that is available to them in order to pay for ever increasing costs of college. Finding ways to pay for college can be even more daunting than getting accepted. A recent report by the College Board found that the tuition for public universities jumped again this year by 6.3 percent (or 2.4 percent accounting for inflation), while cost for private universities rose 5.9 percent (2 percent with inflation). Including all tuition and fees, public universities now cost $12,796 on average, while private universities cost $30,367.

Of course, the core problem is not the early admissions programs, but the lack of access to information about the entire process of college admissions. With this in mind, the abandoning of early admissions by Harvard and Princeton – and only a handful of other schools – will have very little impact on the educational opportunities of informationallydisadvantaged students. If universities are serious about helping the educational prospects of underprivileged students, then they must work to help these students build their networks by investing in underprivileged communities.

The total value of the top five university endowments – those of Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Princeton and the University of Texas system – is over $75 billion, with Harvard banking almost $26 billion alone. The combined value of these endowments is more than the gross domestic product of 166 countries as listed by the CIA factbook. With these massive assets, wealthy universities ought to invest money into urban and rural communities to provide college resource centers for students who do not otherwise have access to information about the application process and financial aid.

Universities that strive for increasingly diverse classes can help themselves by providing recruiting and application materials at the resource centers for their particular programs. More importantly, they will help students more generally by allowing potential applicants to explore other educational and financial aid options, opening up windows they may not otherwise have had. In addition to an increased level of class diversity, alumni donors are likely to assist with the financial burden placed on the university by socially conscious programs like these.

By dropping early admissions programs, Harvard and Princeton have already gone on record to acknowledge that underprivileged students are at an educational disadvantage because of their lack of social capital. This acknowledgement will hopefully be followed by meaningful change within the culture of higher education, beyond just an over-hyped – and most likely ineffectual – minor change in admissions policy at a few elite schools. As such, it is the responsibility of wealthy universities to provide the initial resources necessary to ensure truly fair access to the application process and financial aid across all backgrounds. This would be a truly relevant first step that could compel other universities to follow suit.

Email David Rutenberg at djr27@georgetown.edu



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