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Harvard's fairness lesson

HARVARD UNIVERSITY has taken a wise step by ending its early action program for undergraduate admissions. For more than 30 years, the college let students apply early and issued an admissions decision by December, months before the usual April notification. The program was non binding, so students could still apply to other schools.

Although early action was a relief for anxious students, Harvard has come to believe that the practice unfairly favors students from sophisticated high schools and families -- and that binding programs favor those who have little concern about financial aid. Starting next fall, Harvard will only have one admissions cycle.

The delay to next year is intended to invite other schools to follow suit. But yesterday, Richard Levin, Yale's president, hesitated, concluding, ``It is not clear that eliminating early admissions will result in the admission of more students from low-income families." He praised on going efforts to improve recruitment and boost financial aid. Yale also has a non binding early admissions program.

A Princeton spokeswoman said trustees will conduct an annual review of aid policies in the coming weeks.

Harvard's interim president, Derek Bok, was more decisive, saying, ``The college admissions process has become too pressured, too complex, and too vulnerable to public cynicism."

He's right, but there's much more for private colleges to do to address that cynicism.

Start with costs. The $40,000-plus price tag is a hurdle for many families, even those with earnings of more than $100,000 a year. A frequently told story: Parents fill out financial aid forms but are awarded only a tiny amount of assistance. The dirty secret, some claim, is that colleges expect grandpa to pay the bill. And, indeed, financial advisers recommend several tax-friendly ways for relatives to contribute. But most families don't have grandparents with such means.

There has been progress. Harvard does not expect payment from parents earning $60,000 or less. At Yale this policy applies to families earning $45,000 or less. Since 2001, Princeton has eliminated loans from its financial aid packages, increasing grants instead. This creates the potential for students to graduate debt-free. But the work of the richest schools isn't enough to tackle national challenges of affordability and access.

Overwhelmed high school guidance counselors work with hundreds of students, making it tough to do a thorough job with each one. That hurts students whose parents aren't familiar with admissions and who can't hire private counselors. Colleges might help by providing general admissions counseling to middle and high school students.

Making college more affordable must be a national priority, to boost academic success and long-term economic well-being.

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