Is Early Admission Unfair? ; Harvard's Decision to Scrap the Practice This Week Has Sparked a Debate about How Colleges Should Pick Students

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When Jamie Dusseault applies to college this fall, she'll try what an increasing number of informed students do to better their chances at select institutions: Apply early.

"They say there's a 40 percent chance of getting in if you apply early, and a 30 percent chance if you apply regular," says the senior at Holderness School in New Hampshire, who is applying to Northwestern University. "I don't have any connections, so I thought I should make it the easiest possible to get in."

The strategy may ease the admissions process for some. But critics say it also rewards advantaged students in a system already skewed in their favor. So when Harvard University decided this week to do away with its early admission policy, it created a stir in the college- admissions world. Its decision has opened a national conversation about the equity and transparency of admissions, the fairness of early admission, and how any number of admissions practices contribute to the pressure cooker of the application process.

"Kids have these spreadsheets, and they rank things, and they have color-coded stars.... They flip coins, they weep," says Peter Jenkins, director of college counseling at Northfield Mount Hermon, a private high school in Gill, Mass. "In taking this new stand, [Harvard] has made a commitment to lessen the sort of psychosis that strikes families in September and October of the senior year."

The decision has been widely praised, though most say it will only have a significant impact if many other schools follow suit. Some question how much scrapping early admission by itself will help reform the system. Early admission is the equivalent of adding 100 points to a student's SAT score, according to one study.

The decision fits into a larger pattern of Harvard's commitment to making admission fairer for the less-advantaged, says William Fitzsimmons, the school's dean of admissions. Students who lack good counseling in high school or whose parents lack knowledge about college admissions miss out on the early-admissions cycle, he says. "Now those students will be able to consider Harvard in their senior year and see a level playing field."

He also hopes the decision will jumpstart a conversation about other ways colleges can help ease the admissions frenzy.

"Never in all my career have I seen such a positive reaction to something," says Dean Fitzsimmons. "It seems to have touched a nerve in a lot of people."

Harvard used a less stringent form of early admission, called "early action," which lets students choose another school after they've been accepted. More common is "early decision," in which a student commits to a school in advance.

Some counselors see early admission as a useful tool that helps students find out their fate early. It also lets colleges - particularly those who use the more binding form of early decision - gauge a student's enthusiasm and make an offer they know will be accepted. …