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Why Harvard Is Halting Its Early Action Program

Harvard University is ending its policy of admitting some students much earlier in their senior year of high school. The new Harvard policy will take effect in the fall of 2007, for students hoping to enter Harvard as freshmen in September 2008. Critics say such early admissions policies discriminate against students from poorer families and ratchet up the pressure on students. NPR's Education Editor Steve Drummond answers some questions about the announcement.

What will the new policy be?

Currently, students have the option of applying for early admission to Harvard by Nov. 1 of their senior year of high school. In mid-December, those applicants find out whether they've gotten in. That's a big advantage. They know early so they can stop worrying.

The new policy sets one application deadline for everyone: January 1. And all applicants will now have to wait until April to find out whether they're in.

Q: There was some concern that early admissions was an unfair policy?

Critics say that early admissions favors students from more educated families and from more affluent high schools. These students have the know-how to get their applications in early. Poorer families or students whose parents didn't go to college might not even know that early admissions exists. Critics also say that those students often need to weigh several admissions offers to see which has the best financial aid. So they might skip the early admissions process because they wouldn't be able to make those comparisons.

Interim Harvard President Derek Bok says the new policy will be "simpler and fairer." Harvard students from families that earn less than $60,000 a year already receive a free ride.

What's the point of early admissions?

In some ways, the rise of early admissions policies has been a response to the U.S. News college rankings. Until 2003, U.S. News ranked "yield" -- the proportion of students who were admitted and who actually attended a school. Early admissions was seen as a way of "locking in" those students and preventing them from going somewhere else. Many of these policies required students who'd been accepted to attend, though Harvard's was nonbinding. Harvard says it's concerned that not many students were able to see that distinction.

Why isn't Harvard instituting this policy for this fall?

Bok says the one-year delay will give other universities time to respond and adjust their policies accordingly. And Harvard says it hopes other schools will follow suit.

How significant is this?

It's significant in terms of the relatively few highly selective colleges and universities in the country. Harvard, of course, is an Ivy League school and a leader in this field. It's likely that other institutions will follow suit. In some ways though, for the vast majority of the 15 million college students in the country -- many of whom attend community colleges or state colleges or universities that admit virtually every applicant -- this won't have much of an effect.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Steve Drummond heads up two teams of journalists at NPR. NPR Ed is a nine-member team that launched in March 2014, providing deeper coverage of learning and education and extending it to audiences across digital platforms. Code Switch is an eight-person team that covers race and identity across the network, and in an award-winning weekly podcast.