Early Admissions: Whose Advantage?

When Harvard University announced in September that it would eliminate its early-admissions program—described by interim president Derek Bok as the kind of programs that “advantage the advantaged”—many observers wondered if Penn would do so as well. After Princeton followed suit, The Chronicle of Higher Education noted that officials there and at Harvard “have expressed hope that by abolishing early decision, they will compel other colleges to shift to a single application deadline.” The University of Virginia also declared its intention to drop the program.

But Penn quickly made it clear that it had no plans to change a policy that has worked well for it and its students over the past four decades, and sought to reframe the debate to one that focused more on increased financial aid for low- and middle-income applicants. The day Harvard made its announcement, the University released a brief statement that noted, among other things: “We like admitting students who select Penn as their first choice. Our student body is very happy to be here and it makes for a better student experience. At the same time, we are very committed to increasing diversity and have greatly improved our financial-aid programs for students from disadvantaged families.”

In an editorial published early last month in The Washington Post and Newsday, Penn President Amy Gutmann spelled out the University’s position in more detail. Suggesting that the argument over early admissions was an “internecine debate” and a “distraction” from the “urgent need for all but a handful of colleges and universities to improve financial aid for students from low-income and middle-income families,” Gutmann stated that early admissions “have not been an impediment to improving access, and abolishing the practice will do no significant social good.”

Because of Penn’s outreach activities and improved financial-aid policies, “many more minorities and low-income students are applying to Penn for both early and regular decisions,” she wrote, and a “record number (and proportion) of minority students” have been enrolled. Even so, “we will accomplish nothing significant in improving access to students from low- and middle-income families unless we focus our attention on strengthening our need-based financial-aid program and our outreach to students who attend schools where they have not been informed about the availability of need-based financial aid.”

That need-based financial aid is “the great equalizer of opportunity in higher education,” Gutmann said. “Nothing promotes equity and socioeconomic diversity more effectively.”

Over the past two decades, Gutmann argued, most colleges and universities “have moved in precisely the wrong direction: They have increasingly relied on merit-based aid (scholarships based on scholastic ability) and athletic scholarships, both of which disproportionately favor students from higher-income families, rather than need-based aid.” As a result, they have “widened the enrollment gap between high-income and both middle- and low-income students.”

John A. Blackburn, the University of Virginia’s dean of undergraduate admissions, had a different perspective, telling the Chronicle that while early decision “was not designed to keep out low-income students, what we’ve seen is that the population that were admitted under this program are very homogeneous.” Many students from poorer families “decline to apply early,” the Chroniclenoted, “because they want to compare financial-aid offers from multiple institutions during the regular admissions process.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, Gutmann cited Penn’s recent approach of improving financial aid for financially needier students as the most productive: Last year the University substituted grants for loans from families earning less than $50,000 a year, she noted, and the “total increase in grant aid at Penn over the past five years has been twice the rate of our tuition increases.” Columbia University also recently announced it would provide full grants to low-income students instead of loans.

“American democracy can flourish and our economy remain competitive on a global stage only if we offer the highest-quality education to the most talented children from all socioeconomic backgrounds,” Gutmann wrote. And state and federal governments “need to do their part in improving elementary and secondary education and in joining with us—for example, by significantly increasing the level of Pell grants and extending financial aid to more middle-income students—to make college a realistic aspiration for all.”—S.H.

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