The oldest institution of higher learning in the United States said that it is going to give students needing financial assistance more time to apply by abolishing a system that requires students to apply early in the academic year and secure a place months before starting.

 

Derek Bok, Harvard's interim president, said: "Early admission programmes tend to advantage the advantaged. We hope that doing away with early admission will improve the process and make it simpler and fairer."

 

Harvard has recently been trying to re-brand its elitist image by making its admissions process more accessible, with education fees being waived for families earning under $60,000 a year.

 

"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," Bok said on Tuesday.

 

For all social levels

 

William Fitzsimmons, Harvard's dean of admissions, said the university wanted to create a student body that represented all social levels.

 

He said: "An early admission programme that is less accessible to students from modest economic backgrounds operates at cross-purposes with our goal of finding and admitting the most talented students from across the economic spectrum."

 

The changes are due to take effect for students starting in 2008 and will initially come in on a two- to three-year trial period.

 

The college, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is one of the most exclusive of the private east coast universities in the US known as the Ivy League.

 

It was established more than 350 years ago and counts some of history's leading political leaders, scientists and writers among its graduates.