Early applications on rise at colleges

Programs drawing more ethnically, economically diverse students

By Mary Carmichael
Globe Staff / November 22, 2011

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High school seniors hoping for an advance nod from Harvard University have swamped it with an unusually large group of early applications that represent the most economically and ethnically diverse set of students in the school’s history.

Harvard canceled its early action program in 2006 because of worries that privileged applicants were getting an edge and holding back attempts to recruit a more diverse student population, a fear backed up by studies showing that early deadlines tend to draw a whiter, richer applicant pool than conventional winter and spring cutoff dates do.

But the school reinstated the program this year and announced yesterday that it drew 4,245 applicants, an increase from the 4,010 who applied in 2006. Almost 72 percent of this year’s applicants need financial aid, and numbers of African-American, Latino, and Native American students are all up.

Harvard is one of many colleges deluged with early applications. Most elite programs - including Brown, Cornell, and Duke universities - have seen increases. That was true across the board last year, as well. In 2010, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, 72 percent of colleges said they saw more applications to early action programs, which let students know earlier whether they have been accepted but do not require a commitment in return.

At Northeastern University, early applications have increased for three years running. This year, they are up 14 percent, with almost six applicants for every open slot.

Boston University’s early decision program - which, unlike early action, has a binding commitment attached - has seen a 21 percent rise.

“This is unusual,’’ said Kelly Walter, head of admissions at BU. “We’re very pleased. It’s certainly the largest increase in early decision I’ve seen.’’

That may be attributable to several new marketing campaigns, including a red and white postcard sent to prospective students and emblazoned with the slogan, “Why wait?’’

“We’ve never isolated any kind of message about early decision before,’’ Walter said. “It was the right thing to do.’’

Smaller schools have seen jumps, too. Babson College, which has both binding and non-binding early programs, has seen 18 and 22 percent rises respectively. The College of the Holy Cross is “running slightly ahead of last year,’’ said admissions director Ann McDermott, though its binding program is still far from its deadline of Dec. 15.

“There’s a lot of pressure on kids to get a jump on the process and have some certainty about their future,’’ McDermott said. “We spent a lot of time trying to make students and their families think about what a serious commitment it is, especially if there’s a niggling doubt.’’

At a few schools, early applicant numbers are down, though not by much. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology saw about a 5 percent decrease.

“This was not unexpected,’’ said MIT’s dean of admissions, Stuart Schmill. “In some ways, I was expecting a larger drop.’’ That is partly because MIT’s recruitment has become more selective in recent years and partly because some students who might have applied early to MIT may now choose Harvard’s resuscitated early action program instead. When Harvard canceled the program, MIT saw a 1,000-student bump in early applications.

At least two other schools that followed Harvard’s lead in 2006, Princeton and the University of Virginia, have also revived their programs this year. Both have drawn crowds. Princeton had 3,547 early applicants, three times the size of its freshman class, and Virginia had 11,417.

William Fitzsimmons, Harvard’s dean of admissions, said that the school, along with Princeton and Virginia, had made a point of trying to increase diversity in its early applicants by recruiting trips.

“One of our major concerns about early action in the past was a lack of diversity,’’ he said. “The additional travel we conducted in nearly 20 cities with Princeton and the University of Virginia may have played a part in changing that. We look forward to sustaining that outreach in the future, even though all three of us have returned to early admission.’’

Mary Carmichael can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @mary_carmichael.

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