The independent news organization of Duke University

Harvard mulls admit changes

Harvard University threw another wrench into the growing debate over the undergraduate early decision process last week by announcing that it is considering taking regular decision applications from students who have already been accepted early decision at other schools.

The Ivy League's most selective university currently has a non-binding early action process and--under guidelines approved in fall 2001 by the National Association for College Admission Counseling--allows applicants to apply early action to Harvard while also applying early decision to other schools.

Harvard officials could not be reached for comment, but told The Boston Globe and The Harvard Crimson last week they are considering extending the NACAC policy to regular decision.

Duke Director of Undergraduate Admissions Christoph Guttentag wrote in an e-mail from a conference of admissions officers that Harvard Dean of Admissions William Fitzsimmons had assured his peers "no decision has been made" about whether to honor the commitment made by students accepted through other colleges' early decision programs. Guttentag would not comment further.

President Nan Keohane wrote in an e-mail that Duke has never considered accepting applications from those who are bound to other schools and would not do so. She said that such an aggressive move by Harvard could lead Duke to rethink its early decision policy, which she and Guttentag have defended in the past as beneficial for students who are confident that Duke is their first choice.

"I have mixed feelings about [early decision] and these programs," Keohane wrote, "and even though I think Duke does a good job with them, I don't think it would be the end of the world if they gradually get dismantled under pressures like this. Duke will continue to do quite well without such a program, and we can live easily with a variety of outcomes."

What Harvard is now contemplating, however, would contradict standard admissions practices by challenging the binding agreement between students accepted early decision and their respective schools.

Students accepted early at schools like Duke typically have several weeks to reject the offer but thereafter are bound to their agreement, said Jim Belvin, director of financial aid. Occasionally, students later break their contracts for financial reasons, an accepted practice that universities rarely challenge. For example, Duke accepted 428 students early last year, but only 418 enrolled.

Under the proposed change, Harvard, which has an admissions yield of approximately 80 percent and an average financial aid package of $22,428, would be able to accept some of those 428 early decision Class of 2005 students and possibly offer them a more competitive financial aid package. However, for those students to matriculate at Harvard, Duke would need to release them from their early decision agreement. In contrast to Harvard, Duke's admission yield is about 43 percent and an average financial aid package is $21,431.

In December, Yale University President Richard Levin proposed eliminating early decision nationwide.