Privileging the Privileged: Harvard’s Real Problem

AP Photo/Elise Amendola, File

A tour group walks through the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

The ongoing lawsuit, Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, has cast a spotlight on admissions at Harvard and elite private colleges more broadly, illuminating in unprecedented detail practices typically carried out behind closed doors. The revelations unearthed by the case about how such institutions decide who will win their coveted offers of admission raise issues that go far beyond the much-discussed matter of affirmative action and point to the need for fundamental change.

Despite the widely held belief that elite colleges look only at grades and test scores, ranking people on that basis, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, as far back as 1952, Harvard set an effective quota of 10 percent of the freshman class for what it called “top brains”—exceptionally brilliant applicants whose main strength was academic; too many such students, Harvard’s Dean of Admissions warned in an internal document, could “damage the overall quality of the student body.” Harvard and its peer institutions simply do not want to limit their student bodies to the next generation of rocket scientists, professors, or assorted intellectuals. Instead, as admissions officers see it, their job is to find, recruit, and educate the next generation of “leaders”—the men and women who will preside over America’s major economic, political, and social institutions.

In Harvard’s judgment, grades and test scores are very inadequate predictors of leadership. Accordingly, Harvard assigns each applicant a separate personal, academic, and extracurricular rating; of these ratings, the academic score carries the least weight, and the personal score the most.

What the documents revealed during the trial have made abundantly clear is that some of the grounds that Harvard uses in deciding whom to admit—grounds very similar to those of other elite private colleges and universities—are long overdue for change. Based on evidence presented at the trial, here are a few hard-to-justify practices that may not survive sunlight:

The record in the case makes clear, for example, that the Harvard Office of Admissions closely coordinates with Harvard’s Office of Development, as is almost surely the case with Harvard’s peer institutions. The Office of Development, in turn, transmits the names of donors whose relatives or friends warrant special consideration. While no one can directly buy a place in the freshman class, applicants flagged by the Office of Development—Jared Kushner is the best known contemporary example—enjoy a substantial “tip” (Harvard’s word for preference).

Likewise, the children of alumni (known as “legacies”) receive substantial preferential treatment, being admitted at a rate of 33 percent, compared to 5 percent of all non-legacy applicants. Legacies end up comprising 14 to 15 percent of the freshman class—about one student in seven.

By far the strongest preference is granted to recruited athletes, who are admitted at an astonishing rate of over 75 percent. While 70 percent of recruited athletes with a mediocre academic rating of four (on a scale of one to six, with one highest) were admitted, the admit rate for non-athletes with the same academic rating was just 0.076—less than one in a thousand. Not infrequently playing sports favored by the privileged—among them, squash, sailing, fencing, and crew—recruited athletes constitute 11 percent of admitted students.

In contrast to the strong favoritism shown to donors, legacies, and recruited athletes, the magnitude of the “tip” given to socioeconomically disadvantaged students, whether defined as coming from low-income families or being the first in the family to attend college, is very modest. (The same pattern of weak preference for the socioeconomically disadvantaged was also found in an earlier study of 19 selective institutions by William Bowen, former president of Princeton.)

In the long run, the interests of Harvard and other elite universities, as well as those of the larger society, would be best served by abandoning time-worn practices that have become anachronistic and morally untenable. Towards this end, four changes in the standard practices of elite private institutions are warranted.

Eliminate all special consideration for the children of donors. In any other context, the offering of money for favors would be a textbook example of corruption. A French or Japanese person would find unimaginable the offering of money for a place at Ecole Normale Superieure or Tokyo University; such behavior would be considered a crime in those countries, and could justifiably land those involved in jail.

Eliminate all preference for legacies. Five of the world’s leading universitiesOxford, Cambridge, MIT, CalTech, and my own institution, the University of California at Berkeley—already do not give preference to the children of alumni. Giving preference to legacies is in essence a form of affirmative action for the well-to-do and constitutes an egregious violation of one of the most fundamental American principles: that your position in life is supposed to be based on what you have accomplished, not on the family you are born into.

The preference for recruited athletes should be sharply curtailed. Since athletic accomplishment is, however, a form of merit, recognition of some kind is appropriate. But it should not be stronger than the tips given to artists, poets, musicians, dancers, actors, and other applicants who have exhibited talent. Of course, such an action could not be carried out by Harvard alone, but would require coordinated action by its athletic competitors in the Ivy League.

Give added weight to socioeconomic disadvantage. Harvard makes much of its commitment to inclusion, but the reality is that poor and working-class students remain vastly underrepresented; a 2017 report found that only 4.5 percent of students came from the bottom 20 percent of the income ladder, while 67 percent came from the top 20 percent. This is not because there are too few low-SES students who qualify academically for highly selective universities. As a sign that Harvard and its similar institutions take class as well as race seriously, they should substantially increase the weight of socioeconomic disadvantage.

In fairness, there is much that is admirable about the current policies of some of America’s leading universities: need-blind admissions for applicants from all over the world, a cost-free education for admitted students from families with incomes of less than $65,000, and—of special relevance at this moment—their vigorous defense of race-attentive affirmative action. Yet despite their rhetoric of inclusion and diversity, many of their policies serve to protect the privileges of the already privileged. The recent revelations provide a singular opportunity for Harvard and like institutions to take a hard look at their policies and open their doors wider to the vast majority of young people whose families enjoy neither wealth nor power.

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