Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Oh, Please

Via Greg Mankiw, we are directed to the Harvard Crimson's article on Harvard's decision to drop early admission. Our eyes first catch this quote:

Two Harvard professors who co-authored “The Early Admissions Game: Joining the Elite” wrote in an e-mail that they were “quite surprised” at Harvard’s decision.

“Harvard has benefited greatly over the years from its early admissions policies,” Larsen Professor of Public Policy Christopher N. Avery ’88 and Ramsey Professor of Political Economy Richard J. Zeckhauser ’62 wrote. “This strongly suggests that this policy change is a selfless act, not some stratagem to outmaneuver its rivals.”

If it's a selfless act, then I am sure I won't be reading about it when Harvard next solicits me for money. I'll let you know.

But what would that mean if it were true? That Harvard has decided that it will sacrifice the academic quality of its own class by competing less hard for the students who might otherwise have gone to Harvard if they found out in the late fall rather than the early spring, and whose presence would be missed?

One certainly wouldn't get that impression from the other statements in the article. Consider:
The Corporation, which serves as the University’s executive board, decided to drop the program in large part because of concerns that early admission provides an unfair advantage to applicants from privileged backgrounds, Bok and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 said in a joint interview yesterday.

Jettisoning early admission, Fitzsimmons said, is “certainly a win for students in the bottom quarter and bottom half of the income distribution.” Students from more affluent families often apply early to express special interest in a particular school, while students from lower socioeconomic levels frequently hold off for the regular admissions process in order to compare colleges’ financial aid offers.

I posted yesterday about how the financial aid remark does not apply to Harvard's case, but that's not the point. I would define an advantage in the admissions process as an increased probability of being accepted, conditional on the quality of the application, at the early deadline compared to the regular deadline. I don't know if there are any sensible reasons for giving such an advantage to any set of applicants. Maybe Harvard wants to make sure it fills a diversity quota early in the process. Maybe Harvard wants to make sure it fills a genius quota early in the process. But that's not the point either (particularly since in Harvard's system, the student is not obligated to attend if admitted early).

The point is that if there is such an advantage, and if that advantage is not desired by the University, then it is fully within the power of Fitzsimmons and his staff to remove it while keeping the early admissions arrangement. Just admit fewer of the weaker applicants from more affluent backgrounds at the early deadline. Done.

In light of this, I regard these public remarks as an acknowledgement by Harvard's officials that they are not getting much out of the early admissions program, cannot figure out a way to get much out of it, and have decided to get rid of it. It might be the right business decision, but it is hardly laudable or a general statement about what other colleges should do.

1 comment:

Tom C said...

I think what it shows is that Harvard sees no significant difference in acceptance rates between early and later admissions (it's probably over 95%, I'm guessing), so they could sacrifice the program in favor of the huge public relations gain they achieved.

I'm also guessing that in the vast majority of colleges, the admissions officers, who certainly do see a big drop off of acceptance rates from early to normal admissions, will not be able to give up the program. There are perhaps only 10-15 schools that could.

Now, that said, it's also clear that even in the best schools, the early admissions criteria are less stringent, because it ameliorates risk. If they are letting in 10% overall, why should early admission be 30%? This only makes sense if your job depends on getting exactly 1000 people to accept.