Last week, Harvard University decided to drop its “early admission” program and strongly urged other elite colleges to follow. The call to change is working — Princeton made the same announcement just a few days ago. The change in policy is a positive sign that America’s elite institutions are actualizing their stated commitments to increase diversity in admissions and address issues related to financial aid. Perhaps Harvard was inspired by the University of Southern California, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Delaware and other institutions that have decided to drop their early admission or early action programs for the same reasons?
But just what are early admission programs and how do they affect low-income students? According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s “Statement of Principles of Good Practice,” there are three types of early choice plans. Early admission programs — like early action, early decision and restrictive early action programs — allow students to apply for early consideration at their first choice institution. However, early decision and restrictive early action policies prohibit students from applying to other early consideration programs. They may not require, but strongly encourage students to make nonrefundable enrollment deposits well before the national May 1st college commitment date and well before students and parents receive financial aid offers.
Clearly, making a decision about college admission without a financial aid offer is a high-risk decision for families who can’t fully finance a four-year college degree. But it’s even more complicated for the poorest students — here are three reasons why. First, low-income students don’t know about early admission programs. Studies have shown that many low-income students don’t even understand the basics of admission and financial aid, much less the complicated tiered system of early action, restricted early action and early decision options. High-achieving low-income students, who would be highly regarded, are less likely to apply via early admission, so they miss out on the opportunity to be part of this “elite” applicant pool.
Second, the strategic decisions that involve preparing for, applying to and committing to an institution through an early admission program involve multiple discussions with counselors, teachers and parents. Low-income students typically attend schools where counselors are unable to devote the individual attention needed for this intensive application process. Low-income parents typically do not have access to the resources that students need to put together a highly competitive application portfolio. Many students who plan to apply to colleges using early decision programs have been preparing their portfolios well in advance of 12th grade, if not years before. It is not unlikely for these students to employ a private consultant to assist with their college application process.
Finally, students who choose to “lock in” via early admissions programs are not automatically guaranteed full financial aid. What happens when a “locked in” student finds out that his or her parents are expected to contribute 10 percent to 20 percent of their annual income for the first year of college? What happens to the financially needy student who is admitted via early admission and receives a “full” financial aid package that does not account for the “hidden costs” of college, like holiday travel or buying climate appropriate clothes? Of course, this may also be the case for a student admitted during the regular admission process, but the perceptions (and reality) of having choices when applying via regular decision admissions are different.
As a researcher who focuses on financial aid for low-income students of color, I have never been a proponent of early admission programs, especially for students who are incredibly high achieving and financially needy. Students may find themselves committed to attend a particular institution by January 1st, two months before the federal financial aid applications are due and up to five months before receiving a financial aid offer. If that offer does not meet the needs of the students, they may not be able to attend their first choice school, and they have missed out on the opportunity to commit to another school.
Although Harvard and many other institutions with similar programs do not follow the practice of requiring students to “lock in” via early admissions, students who opt to participate in other early restrictive programs are not able to apply to multiple institutions at the same time. Through early admission programs, students are stating their clear preference to one institution, which sends a distinct message to other similar colleges and adds to the increasing competitiveness of gaining acceptance to the most elite private schools in the country. Hundreds of four-year colleges enact this practice in hopes of securing commitments from the strongest candidates sooner rather than later. Harvard’s early admission policy was 30 years old, which highlights just how entrenched this preferential program has been on America’s college campuses. But now, there is a stronger possibility for change.
Is it good news that others are following Harvard’s lead in dropping early admission? Yes. Dropping these programs will end a history of advantage for already privileged students. But, this “yes” needs added qualification — as other institutions consider eliminating these programs, they should also strongly consider adopting another policy that has caught on at Harvard and other institutions — full financial aid, with minimum debt burden, for most needy, academically eligible students. The decision to drop early admission should be seen as one positive step in the process of reframing admission and financial aid policy.
Dr. Kristan M. Venegas is an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Nevada, Reno and an affiliate of the Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis at the University of Southern California.
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