Harvard University departed from convention last week when it announced the elimination of its early-action option for undergraduate applicants. When enacted next fall – in time for applications from the class of 2012 – the decision will help level the playing field between advantaged and disadvantaged applicants at Harvard by instituting a uniform deadline for all applicants. Early action disproportionately benefits wealthier, better-supported applicants, and other schools should follow Harvard’s lead. Yet attempts to make the admissions system fairer cannot alone address the heavy costs that make a college education unaffordable for too many poor and middle-class students.

Sarah Royce

Both non-binding early-action admission policies and binding early-decision ones are problematic because the students who seize the opportunity to apply early generally come from more affluent and advantaged high schools, where counselors push students to apply to top colleges and help them navigate the convoluted application process. These students often also have the benefits of active, supportive parents, paid admissions coaches and private tutoring.

By admitting some applicants early, colleges have fewer spots left for those applying under the regular deadline, making admission more competitive. This hurts some students who simply cannot apply through early admission programs because the decision at many schools is binding and must be made before they are able to access and compare financial-aid packages – a crucial factor for all but the wealthiest students. As Harvard argues, overturning the early deadline will mitigate these problems and leave applicants on more equal footing.

Because Harvard is a perennial trendsetter in higher education, the decision sends a clear signal to other top institutions to follow suit. Harvard can afford to take this risk because of its exorbitant endowment and its already robust and highly qualified applicant pool. Still, it is imperative that other prestigious universities follow Harvard’s lead; if the new system fails, the university has already said it might revert to an early-admissions program.

As well-intentioned and progressive a policy move for higher education this is, Harvard and other universities should not lose sight of the more important issues facing students wishing to get a college education. Many students are not able to attend the college of their choice because financial-aid packages – which at most schools are composed of far more loans than grants – are insufficient. Though Harvard’s policy of waiving tuition for students from low-income families is a good start, similar initiatives need to be expanded, and may require government support.

At top public institutions like the University, tuition costs continue to rise as a result of declining state funding. Many would-be college-bound high-school seniors still cannot afford to go to college and must immediately enter the workforce instead.

To ensure greater access to higher education and to promote diversity in colleges and universities across the country, these problems must be addressed with great urgency. Harvard’s deviation from precedent exhibits progressive thinking for admissions policies. But to solve the overarching problems of college affordability and accessibility, universities and policymakers need to put their money where their mouth is.

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