Think One School Can Change the World? Harvard Does
Oberlin may have been the first college to admit African-Americans and it may have been among the first to become co-educational, but last week, another college took the lead in making an important and progressive change. Harvard University, America’s most prestigious and influential educational institution, announced that starting next fall it will discontinue its early action program that allows students to apply to the school in November and know whether they have been admitted by December, a month before the regular admissions pool even begins. Harvard’s brave decision is a first step towards a saner and more equitable college admissions process, a step that Oberlin should follow if it intends to maintain its identity as a progressive school.
There are a number of good reasons to abandon early admissions, all of which Harvard cited in explaining its decision. The most obvious — and nefarious — is that the practice severely disadvantages low-income applicants. At Oberlin and most other schools, early admission enters the applicant into a binding contract, stating that he or she is committed to attend the college if accepted. This prohibits students whose decisions are contingent upon financial aid from applying early. You can’t know which college will give you the best financial aid if you are locked into a school by December 15.
The exclusionary nature of this process is exacerbated by the fact that colleges are far more likely to accept early applicants. Last year, for instance, Columbia University accepted 34 percent of early applicants, compared with 9 percent of those from the regular application pool. Oberlin accepted 75 percent of those who applied early, compared to 34 percent of applicants overall, filling 38 percent of the freshman class with students for whom financial aid was not a deciding consideration.
There is another negative side effect to early admissions, perhaps less serious, but equally real: early admissions help to fuel the frenzy surrounding the college applications that plagues so many high school students. It pushes the process ahead by several months and forces students into definite decisions that they may not be ready to make. This pressure comes from family, friends and schools — it is very real as I, and I’m sure many Oberlin students, can attest. Ending early admissions may not quell the insanity of the process entirely, but it can certainly be a start.
The only real reasons for a college to maintain early admissions are entirely self-serving: accepting early applicants helps a college to boost its yield, the percentage of accepted students who choose to enroll. It also gives a break to hard working admissions officers by spacing out the process. But are shorter workdays for admissions officers and better rankings in U.S. News and World Report really good enough reasons to maintain a system that is inherently inequitable? Of course not. Oberlin, of all places, should know this.
Granted, we cannot ignore the fact that Harvard is Harvard and its bold decision probably will not noticeably affect the quality of its applicant pool. Nonetheless, Oberlin is Oberlin. We wear our progressive history with tremendous pride. If we are going to call ourselves fearless, let’s do something to prove it: let’s be among the first schools to join Harvard and abandon this unfair process.