Go Harvard! (believe it or not)

Why is Harvard's decision to abandon its early admission plan such good news for universities, students, and American higher ed in general?

It's not simply that Early Decision (or Early Action, or a variety of other names) has become such a blight on the higher-ed landscape.

Five years ago, in this Atlantic cover story, I laid out what I thought was a depressingly long list of the bad effects of Early-ism. It ratcheted up the college-entry mania at the most privileged of schools. It encouraged a dishonest and destructive competition among colleges, as they played for minor ranking gains under the lamentable US News system. It forced, or strongly tempted, students to make decisions about college far earlier than they should have to. And worst of all, it was unbelievably unfair, being skewed in every possible way against lower-income students, students from the boondocks, students from most public high schools, and essentially everyone except the prep-school elite. The glory of America's higher-ed system is that it offers such people a chance. (I speak as a graduate of a public high school in the boondocks who ended up going to college at Harvard.) That story got a fair amount of attention in the education world, but its newsstand prospects were affected by its cover date: September, 2001.

Just about everybody in higher ed agreed that this was a problem. (The few exceptions pretended to have principled arguments, but mainly they had gamed the early system to be good for their colleges or prep schools.) But as in an arms race, no one could afford to take the first step away from the immediate advantages that early plans gave. (Advantages? The main one is that the plans allowed colleges to lock in a higher proportion of their applicant pool.) The big exception was Harvard -- which in today's winner take all college hierarchy knows that a huge proportion of those it admits are going to attend anyway. So when Harvard announced that it would take the first step, it did what no one else could afford to do -- and cleared the way for Yale, Princeton, Stanford, and so on down the hierarchy. That's the remarkable thing about this news: a dominant power recognized that its status gave it the leeway to do good. That is why one official quoted by the New York Times said that he had "teared up" on hearing of this admirable step. Let's hope it also increases the shame-factor pressure on those other schools -- do they want to be the ones who still need the crutch of early decision?.

I don't have that many occasions to say so, but: Go Harvard!