Dean Bender's Report
Ex-Dean Wilbur J. Bender's final report on admissions is a stunning and appalling investigation of the trend of College policy which virtually demolishes the bland, mousy optimism of last year's Faculty Admissions report under a cascade of facts.
Bender has focused on the most general aspects of scholarship and admission policy, and concludes that the Faculty missed the point in both issues. In scholarships the problem is not distribution of aid or encouraging people to take loans, but sheet inadequacy of funds. Harvard more than doubled aid in the last decade, but rising costs meant that it could only help about 25 per cent more people, and that the average scholarship holder was forced to supply $700 more from his own pocket. In the same decade, the average income of scholarship applicants almost doubled. Harvard is inexorably becoming an upper-middle class college, and because it cannot hope to maintain the rate of increase in aid that it reached in the last decade, the situation is going to get worse with increasing rapidity. (Since Bender wrote his report, tuition has rise another $200, and scholarship holders were forced to absorb about a third of the increase.)
Bender then sets both scholarships and admissions in a context continuing from recruiting through operating a college on to maintaining active alumni. Bender is extremely unenthusiastic about a college composed of students who are merely among those measured to be in the top one per cent of the nation intellectually--he doubts that this relates clearly to the creativity, originality, and energy that may produce really distinguished graduates; he suspects that a homogeneously brilliant class may be cloying and pedestrian.
But beyond this, he questions whether the trend toward producing nothing but graduate students will not destroy the traditionally active and affluent alumni group which did the leg work for the Program, gave the $82.5 million, and does most of the talent-scouting for admissions. Where will the next 82.5 come from? Whence T.R., F.D.R., and J.F.K.?
But having suggested that Harvard is undermining its own traditional sources of money, support, prestige, and influence, Bender goes on to propose that the policy may be self-defeating as well. The high rejection rate will, he predicts, discourage potential applicants (last year the number of applicants was almost exactly that of the year before). And, he suggests, the recruiters will be as discouraged as the students--the Harvard club recruiting system will go under in the flood of applicants it has created. It is hard to answer a man who has interviewed a candidate and says, "I don't know what else this guy could have had to recommend him."
The synthesis of these twin problems of finances and excessive emphasis on brains finds no explicit statement, but woven through Bender's entire report is a line highly critical of the entire Faculty. The reason we are in danger of becoming an upper class institution is that costs have not been controlled; the tuition increases are diverted entirely into increasing the Faculty's operating budget (only after the very latest tuition rise has the Faculty diverted any of the increased funds to the service of the scholarship office). And the Faculty's increasingly academic image of success is, he maintains, the result of academic narrowness. The Faculty, in short, and Bender does not say this, or even imply it clearly, is being selfish.
The idea that standards of admission for college and graduate school should be the same has generally been associated with the names of E. Bright Wilson and George B. Kistiakowsky rather than the Faculty as a whole. But in judging success of past policies, the Faculty committee relied explicitly and wholly on two criteria number of degrees with honors and rank list standing: perhaps Bender has more cause for worry than the mousy disavowals of the Faculty report would lead one to believe.
The interdependence of alumni interest, admission policy, and the national image of the College may not be quite what Bender implies--the situation may be worse yet. For as the college becomes a prep school for graduate study, it attracts an ever-increasing group of students with these intentions (the percentage intending graduate study does not increase between entrance and graduation). These are the students who, because of skill in getting good grades in school, have been interested in Harvard by increasing national publicity and recruiting. Their ability to produce on tests and exams is their principal recommendation--but, they are rightly led to believe, the same skills will establish their success in college. Increasing pressure for admission will force all students to focus on these skills, and make it increasingly difficult for the admission office to distinguish other qualifications. Thus, the danger is not merely that the tests become meaningless, but also that the applicants adopt the camouflage of acting like potential scholars. Growing uniformity of post-college plans pre-determines an increasing homogeneity in those who apply. And there is not a thing the College can do about it--so says the group which recognizes the problem. For those who have watched students in high-pressure schools receive heart-breaking notes of rejection, the thought occurs that the College had better do something about it.
For, in reality, Harvard cannot afford to have a student's future decided at the time of admission, neither to have him feel permanently broken by rejection nor to have him committed to graduate study by admission. A college in which graduates go on only to more study becomes as much an ivory tower as a prep school in which all seniors pass unthinkingly to ivy-covered halls. If Harvard appears to rely upon a single criterion, it produces an academic orientation which cripples the admissions committee, just as the appearance that everybody goes on to graduate study will produce a clear picture of the student who should go to Harvard.
The damning conclusion is that Harvard can as little afford to seem to accept one criterion as it can afford actually to do so. It must not only avoid total commitment to the little numbers, but it must do so conspicuously and persuasively.