Harvard will announce today that it is eliminating early admission, a move that is likely to turn the college admissions system upside down.
``The college admissions frenzy seems to get worse and worse every year," said William R. Fitzsimmons, Harvard's dean of admissions. ``In particular, it seemed that early admission was the gasoline on the fire."
Several guidance counselors and national specialists said yesterday that they hope and expect other universities to follow Harvard's lead. In recent years, many college officials have attacked early admissions, saying programs that allow students to apply early to one school have a negative effect both on students who use the option and on those who don't.
The practice, many educators and admissions specialists say, favors wealthy students, who are more likely to know the option is available and hence gain an edge, generally being admitted at a higher rate than later applicants. The same students often have other advantages, such as more access to test preparation and private college counselors.
Low-income students face a deterrent to applying early, because if they are accepted by a school that requires an immediate commitment, they lose the chance to compare financial aid offers from other schools.
The University of Delaware eliminated its early decision option this year, but Harvard appears to be the first elite school to do so.
In recent weeks, Fitzsimmons convinced Harvard officials that they should take the plunge, and the university's governing board, the Corporation, approved the move yesterday.
``Somebody has got to take the lead," interim president Derek Bok said. ``We are certainly in a strong position to take whatever risk s are involved."
In recent years, prominent academic leaders such as Richard C. Levin, president of Yale, and Lawrence S. Bacow, president of Tufts, have criticized early admissions, but colleges have been reluctant to be the first to abolish the option, fearing it might drive down the number and quality of applicants if other colleges didn't follow suit.
Bok and Fitzsimmons said they hope other schools will follow Harvard's lead and said they will not implement the change until next fall. Students applying to enter Harvard in fall 2008 will be the first without the option to apply early.
Harvard officials said they would abolish early admissions for at least two or three years as a trial and monitor the results, in case the change has a negative impact on the quality of applicants.
Last year, Harvard admitted 21 percent of its early applicants, compared with less than 10 percent of its overall applicant pool. Fitzsimmons said Harvard does not give any edge to early applicants; rather, the pool of early applicants is stronger.
Representatives of several elite universities had no immediate response yesterday.
Harvard's practice until now has been to offer a nonbinding program called ``early action," which does not require students to enroll even if they are admitted early, so that students can still shop around for other offers. A few other schools offer early action, but most schools use the binding early decision.
Harvard said that even though it gave a choice to those accepted early , the distinction was lost on many families.
The university's early action deadline was Nov. 1, and students were notified of a decision by Dec. 15. Starting next year, all students will have until Jan. 1 , 2008, to apply, with notification by April 1.
Harvard tinkered with its policy in 2002, briefly allowing students to apply early to other colleges as well as Harvard. But the number of applicants skyrocketed and became unmanageable, so the university returned the next year to the standard rule that a student can apply early to only one school.
``This is huge; it's a real demonstration of educational leadership," said Lloyd Thacker, founder of the Education Conservancy, a two-year-old nonprofit pushing for admissions reform. ``Early decision locks in special-interest groups like full-paying students, legacies, and football players. It distorts the playing field."
Several guidance counselors reacted with surprise and approval. They pointed not only to concerns about the effect of early admission on socioeconomic diversity, but on the stress it puts on students to make up their minds to get what they think is an admissions edge from one school.
Lexington Superintendent Paul B. Ash was less critical of early admission than some guidance counselors, saying it gives enormous relief to admitted students.
But, Ash added, `` I'm concerned that kids are making major life decisions at too early an age."
Fitzsimmons said he has heard many tales of young people who applied early, but not to their first choice, because they believed it gave them the highest probability of getting into a top school.
``We read lots of sad stories from people who made a decision that wasn't really the one in their heart," he said. ``It was a decision that had been manufactured by looking at the odds of admission."
While Harvard and a few other schools maintain that early applicants don't get a leg up, some researchers differ. At highly selective colleges, including Harvard, applying early improves the chance of admission on par with an increase of 100 points on the SATs, according to data in the book ``The Early Admissions Game."
One of the book's authors, Christopher Avery, a Kennedy School of Government professor, praised Harvard's move yesterday, but said it's critical for other schools to follow suit. The more schools differ in their application rules, the more it confuses low-income students, Avery said. Those students are less likely to have knowledgeable family members or savvy guidance counselors.
Keshav Persad, a freshman at Suffolk University, said he was tempted to seek early admission last year when he was a senior at Another Course to College, a Boston public school. But he worried that it might lock him into a college he didn't really like or couldn't afford.
``I decided to go against it," said Persad, who turns 19 tomorrow. ``You could potentially miss out on the best school you could have."
Maria Sacchetti of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Bombardieri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.