Friday, September 22, 2006

Should Harvard undercut early decisions?

Dartmouth professor Andrew Samwick reports on his blog that Dartmouth is unlikely to follow Harvard (and now Princeton) in abolishing its early decision program. If this is a sign of what other, similar schools will do, it could make Harvard's recent policy change less tenable. Some strong but risk-averse students might apply to Dartmouth, Columbia, Brown, etc., forgoing the chance to apply to Harvard in order to get the advantage of an early application. If Harvard starts losing too many good applicants in this way, it will have to rethink its position.

Harvard could, however, become the catalyst for systemic change: It could decide to stop honoring early decision commitments to other schools. In this case, a student could get into Dartmouth early, secretly apply to Harvard, and then renege on his Dartmouth commitment if accepted by Harvard. A few years ago, it was rumored that Harvard was considering just that.

There are pros and cons to Harvard taking such a radical step. The arguments against:
  • Harvard would be encouraging students to break promises.
  • The Harvard student body would be disproportionately made up of dishonest students.
On the other hand:
  • By undermining early decisions at other schools, Harvard would give a big push toward changing a system that many educators view as adverse for high-school students.
  • Harvard would be able to accept a greater proportion of the best students.
  • As a general matter, Harvard does not enforce contracts between its students and third parties. Why should Dartmouth be different?

Ideally, Harvard could avoid having to make the choice. If schools such as Dartmouth started worrying that Harvard was considering such a drastic step, maybe that fear alone would be enough to get them to change course and abolish their early decision programs.

But what might induce Dartmouth to fear this possibility? Maybe, if some Harvard faculty member speculated about it on his blog,....