Harvard admission change not likely at CMU

When Harvard University announced last week that it planned to eliminate its early action policy in the fall of 2007, it sent college admissions offices at schools across the country into a tailspin. Now Carnegie Mellon, along with the almost 3000 colleges and universities nationwide, must decide if it will follow suit.

Stating that the program disadvantaged low-income and minority students, Harvard administrators are the first to take such bold action in an attempt to level the college admissions playing field. For now, Carnegie Mellon, which offers binding early decision plans along with an early admission plan for qualified high school juniors, plans to watch from the sidelines.

At Harvard, more than 50 percent of applications are from early decision applicants. In contrast, only about 1000 applications out of the 19,000 that Carnegie Mellon typically receives are early decision.

“We’re not in the same situation that Harvard is in,” said Mike Steidel, Carnegie Mellon director of undergraduate admission and student aid.

Steidel believes that proportion of early decision applicants is not significant enough to disadvantage students applying regular decision. If that proportion were the same as Harvard’s, however, “we’d have to readdress our current strategy,” he said.

Bill Elliott, vice-president for enrollment, doesn’t seem quick to jump on the bandwagon either.

“Early decision serves this institution well,” he said.

However, he is not opposed to new ideas: As a 35-year veteran of the admissions office, he has witnessed the evolution of the admissions process and does not seem fazed by the new development. “We’ll consider anything,” he said, with regard to admissions policies. “We’ve never done the same thing twice.”

Harvard is eliminating the program because university officials feel it disadvantages low-income and minority students, according to a Sept. 12 article in The New York Times. Early admission applicants had historically been disproportionately white and affluent, and students of well-reputed high schools who were savvy about the admissions process.

Binding early decision programs, such as Carnegie Mellon’s, also prevent students with financial need from applying, because they are unable to compare financial aid packages from other schools.

“The quality of advising and counseling a student receives at their secondary school has a bigger bearing than finances,” Steidel said. He also noted that if a student accepted early decision and does not have the ability to pay, the admissions office has been known to release the student from the binding commitment so he or she can attend a school that fits his or her finances better.

“Kids who apply early decision are probably more affluent,” Elliott said. He added that such kids are likely to attend high-peforming high schools where there is ongoing conversation on the intricacies of the application process. “Whether it’s fair or not isn’t the issue — you just have to know what you’re doing [in the admissions process].”

As Steidel considers it, Harvard’s decision levels the playing field for prospective students.

“Less savvy students may not be ready to go early,” he said.

Both Steidel and Elliott agreed that the advantage of early decision is that it allows admissions counselors to know which students want to come here the most.

“I would rather have kids who wanted to come here first than other kids who applied regular decision because they didn’t get into other schools,” Elliott said. “Early decision is for students who have a clear first choice.”

The numbers support that choice: 58 percent of early decision applicants for the fall 2005 incoming class were accepted, while only 38.9 percent of regular decision applicants were offered admission.

“We’d love to see more students declare Carnegie Mellon as a first-choice institution,” Steidel added.

Last fall, 17.2 percent of the incoming class had been accepted early decision. This is in line with the national average: Highly competitive colleges typically admit about 20 percent of applicants through early programs, according to a September 13 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Steidel thinks Harvard’s decision will be heavily discussed at the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s (NACAC) national conference, to be held next month at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in downtown Pittsburgh. Steidel, Elliott, and six other members of the admissions staff plan to attend, along with thousands of high school and college admission counselors from schools nationwide.

A source at the NACAC said that there are not any specific presentations planned on the subject, but that the decision will certainly be discussed.

For now, Carnegie Mellon, like the rest of the country’s colleges and universities, is planning to watch closely how the decision affects admissions in the next several years.

“We might change our minds if it’s in the best interest of Carnegie Mellon,” Steidel said. “We can certainly learn from each other as we go forward.”

Elliott agreed. “We’re going to wait and see what happens in the future,” he said. “We’re trying to create an institution that we’re more proud of tomorrow than we are today.”