In their first year without early admissions, Harvard, Princeton, and the University of Virginia received a record number of applications, a sign that their push to open up the competition for spots to more students may be working, the schools' admissions officials said.
The three universities hope that eliminating early admissions will create a fairer, less stressful process and a more diverse applicant pool. Early applicants tend to be more affluent than students who apply at the regular deadlines.
Harvard had the most dramatic spike, which it attributed in part to its announcement last month that it was greatly boosting financial aid for students from middle- and higher-income families in the 2008-09 school year. Harvard said yesterday it received 27,278 applications by Jan. 1, a 19 percent increase over last year. Princeton, with 20,118 applicants, had a 6.2 percent increase, and UVA, with 18,900 applicants, reported an increase of 4.5 percent.
William R. Fitzsimmons, Harvard's dean of admissions and financial aid, said he hoped the numbers reflect that counselors, parents, and students felt less pressure to rush to apply.
"Frankly, I think we emboldened a bunch of people to step back a bit," Fitzsimmons said. "It's pretty clear, no matter how you cut it, that this first year without early admissions has been a resounding success."
In the fall of 2006, with Harvard acting first, the three schools announced they were scrapping decades-old policies of allowing students to apply by November and learn whether they had been accepted by Dec. 15, a few weeks before the January deadline for regular admissions. The switch to a single Jan. 1 deadline for all admissions went into effect with the applicants for the fall of 2008.
In the past, Harvard, Princeton, and Virginia drew between 30 percent and 50 percent of their freshmen classes from the early applicant pool. Early admission is still used by more than 300 schools, and is popular among students who had a top pick and wanted an answer as early as possible. But it has been unsettling to others who preferred more time to consider multiple schools.
The three schools' policies varied, with Princeton and Virginia requiring students to commit to them as soon as they were accepted, and Harvard giving students the option to say no.
The numbers of students who applied early varied at the three schools, with Harvard regularly getting 4,000 early applicants - about a fifth of its overall applicant pool.
In November, the three schools went on joint recruiting trips to educate students and parents about the elimination of early decision, a venture that probably helped boost application numbers, Fitzsimmons said.
"The message was that we're out here in November when we normally would be doing early admission to tell you we have terrific institutions, and we haven't given away a huge chunk of our freshman class," he said.
Still, Fitzsimmons and admissions officers at Princeton and Virginia cautioned that they could not reach final conclusions about the effect of eliminating early admissions. The universities cannot analyze the economic diversity of their applicants until after February when students apply for financial aid, said Janet Lavin Rappelye, Princeton's dean of admission. In addition, she said, schools will need more than one year of data to draw meaningful conclusions.
"In three to five years, we'll be able to look back to see whether this works for us," Rappelye said. "The question will be, 'Are we admitting a more diverse pool of applicants, and are they coming?' "
Also, it is difficult to know all the factors that influenced the increase in applications, particularly at Harvard, which has been phasing in changes to financial aid since 2004, Fitzsimmons said. Harvard's latest announcement came in mid-December, when most students already had sent in their applications.
Nationally, college applications have been on the rise because of a bulge in the population of high school graduates. The number of graduates climbed from a low of 2.5 million in 1995-96 to an estimated 3.2 million by 2006-07, and is expected to peak at 3.3 million by the end of next school year, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling.
Students also have been applying to a greater number of schools at once, said David Hawkins, the association's director of public policy and research.
"It's very difficult to pinpoint any single interpretation of these numbers," Hawkins said. "Follow the money is always the rule that I go by. Early decision, I would guess, would take a backseat to the [Harvard] financial aid announcement."
But Hawkins said Harvard's 19 percent increase in applications defies predictions from many college officials that Harvard, Princeton, and Virginia would see drops in total application numbers because savvy applicants saw early decision as the best strategy to get into a school.
Yale and MIT, which have early admissions, had higher numbers of early applicants this year. Officials at the schools said it could be because of the changes at the other schools. Yet, Yale expects its overall applicant pool to remain about the same size, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had a 4 percent increase in overall applicants.
Yale has no plans to dump early admissions partly because it saw an increase in the early applicants' diversity about five years ago when it made changes, said Jeffrey Brenzel, the school's dean of undergraduate admissions. Yale used to require early applicants to commit to the university early if they were accepted; now, Yale lets the applicants wait until the regular spring acceptance deadline.
With its rise in applications, Harvard will become more competitive this year, Fitzsimmons said. It will still accept 2,100 freshmen - 7.7 percent of this year's applicants, compared with 9.1 percent last year.
Fitzsimmons said he believes Harvard is reducing stress for some students, based on letters from high school counselors and others saying they appreciate having more time to apply.
But others say it remains to be seen whether eliminating early admissions at some schools will reduce the stress on students.
At Milton Academy, the usual 60 percent to 65 percent of the roughly 190 seniors applied early, and they just chose different schools than in the past, said Rod Skinner, director of college counseling.
"It might have been for some kids that there was less pressure. They could wait till the regular round," said Skinner, "But for other kids, they wanted to get it in early anyway so they could have something by December."
Linda Wertheimer can be reached at email@example.com.