Starting next year, Harvard will eliminate its early round of admissions that allows high school students to apply by Nov. 1 of their senior year and receive a decision — accept, reject or defer — by Dec. 15.
Applicants hoping to enter in the fall of 2008 will face a common application due date of Jan. 1.
"The college admissions process has become too pressured, too complex and too vulnerable to public cynicism," said Harvard interim President Derek Bok. "We hope that doing away with early admission will improve the process and make it simpler and fairer."
Early-action applicants must agree not to apply early to other schools, but can apply elsewhere in the spring and weigh all offers before picking a college by May. More commonly, colleges allow students to apply early-decision, which requires them to commit to attending if accepted.
"The college admissions process has been transformed radically during the past 20 years from an educational transition for students to a high-priced, high-stakes, overly competitive frenzied game," Lloyd Thacker, executive director of Education Conservancy, tells CBS News national correspondent Byron Pitts. "When the most powerful college in the country takes a step like this, most of the people in the profession will listen."
Early admissions programs were designed to let students get the process out of the way once they had selected a college. Such programs also help schools such as Harvard identify particularly enthusiastic applicants.
Acknowledging what many critics have long contended, Harvard said early admissions had become a strategic tactic for students trying to game the system to boost their admissions chances.
Other prestigious universities have tinkered with their early admissions policies, but Harvard is the first to drop it altogether.
"Harvard's obviously the only college that could attempt to do this, I think, because it's so popular. But even so it is at a risk," Christopher Avery, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and author of "The Early Admissions Game," told CBS radio station WBZ.
"Lots of other colleges have been saying we would like to get rid of the system, but we can't move unless other people move. Well, now Harvard's made the first move, so it will be interesting to see if other colleges really meant what they said or if it was just a convenient thing for them to say," said Avery.
Colleges typically take a higher percentage of early applicants, though the applicant pool is usually stronger, too. Last year, Harvard offered admission to about 21 percent of its early-action applicants, according to university figures. But its overall acceptance rate was just 9.3 percent.
"Early admission programs tend to advantage the advantaged," Bok said in a statement issued by the university. "Students from more sophisticated backgrounds and affluent high schools often apply early to increase their chances of admission, while minority students and students from rural areas, other countries and high schools with fewer resources miss out.
"Students needing financial aid are disadvantaged by binding early-decision programs that prevent them from comparing aid packages," he said. "Others who apply early and gain admission to the college of their choice have less reason to work hard at their studies during their final year of high school."
Harvard's statement said the university would wait one year to implement the change in part to give other universities an opportunity also to drop their early programs. If other prominent schools follow, it could significantly change the admissions calendar and strategizing for high-achieving students.
William Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions at Harvard College, said the university would reconsider the decision after a few years if applicant quality suffered.