'Fair Harvard' -- Who's Here And Why?

(This article was written by Seder form research collected in a two-year project by David Labaree '69 and James Loewen, a 1968 PH.D graduate in Sociology. Copies of the entire original work--of which this is a condensation--are available. Two separate surveys were used for this study: one was random sample of Harvard's 1966-67 undergraduates; the other is the result of ten years of work by the Harvard Student Study Center -- a federally funded office doing computer-analyzed surveys -- which sampled the class of '64 and '65 throughout their years at Harvard).

Not many incoming freshmen know what kind of place Harvard is. Each student had his own idealistic concept of the place he is about to enter. And Harvard's conception of what it should and can be. That conception has an unmistakable reflection in Harvard's student body.

Contrary to popular undergraduate belief, Harvard's most striking feature is not the diversity of its students. In Loewen's study, almost one-half of Harvard's undergraduates said that what they liked most about their college was its supposed diversity. However, former dean of admissions William J. Bender made a prediction seven years ago that revealed why Harvard lacked one vital kind of diversity--economic diversity.

Quoted in the New York Times in late September of 1961, Bender said that the rapidly increasing cost of a Harvard education may eventfully limit enrollment in the college to a small "economic elite."

Cut Off From America

"Unless hereafter the steady stream of tuition increases slows down to what is justified by inflation, Harvard College will have to cut itself off from most of America," Bender said in his annual report for 1959-60.

Bender's prediction is coming true. Student fees have risen $1500 since 1961, and now are $3800 a year. Next term they will rise another $400. To an average citizen earning the national median income of $7400, that is a horrifying amount. Yet according to the Harvard Student Study Center's data most students' families can easily afford Harvard. The median income of student' families is$17,500--or almost 2 and one-half times the national median. For Harvard undergraduates, the average family income is $28,000. The fathers of students here are 84 per cent professional semiprofessional, officials, or proprietors. So the rest of the students--only 16 per cent -- come from the occupational groups that make up 74 per cent of the whole nation.

A Lorentz curve comparing the national income figure to those of Harvard students (and also to the tuition-less City college of New York and the national collegiate average) shows how Harvard's income distributions differs from the rest of the country. A number called the Gini Index shows how unequally the total goods of the nation are divded up among the total population. The most the Gini number can equal is 1. If the number is 1, then the person in question has all the goods in question (in this case, representation in Harvard's student body). For Harvard, the Gini Index is .84. For land-holding in fedual England, the value was .65. This means that Harvard students are a more economically elite group when compared to the whole nation than the landed gentry of medieval England was compared to Britain's population.

What does this really mean and why is this so? Socio-economic factors beyond Harvard's control make education something the poor get less of--fewer poor people are prepared for a college education. More important, they don't even apply to college. This is, however, only one possible explanation for Harvard's elitism. What can be done about it? Should something be done about it?

Harvard states in its financial booklet,

Like many people you may have the idea that Harvard is an impossibly expensive college attended mainly by wealthy students. This is a common enough idea, but it is not true.

At least in part, this statement is true, as shown by the figures. The lower economic half of the country's families usually won't bother trying to meet the costs representing two and one-half years' earnings. Harvard's reply is that almost anyone can attend if he is accepted (i.e., "has the ability). This is an important claim for it states that once applications are in, once socio-economic factors have done their work and it's Harvard's turn, the process is a meritocracy. The Admissions Office has basked up this statement. The only way to test it is to look at the applicant group as a whole, ad to compare those who came to those who didn't.

Bogie 3

Only those rated by the Admissions Department as at least a "Bogie 3" were sampled. These were the ones with a good chance of being admitted. This made the sample group of students who did not come as close a match as possible to those who then came. The Harvard Student Study Center data for the class of 1965 shows these applicants who did not come, had a significantly lower median and mean income than those who came. Three times as many non-attenders were below the $7,500 national median, while only one-half as many non-attenders were above $20,000 as opposed to those who came.

Perhaps even more revealing are the figures for those non-attenders who were accepted at their first choice, Harvard, but did not come. Seventy per cent of those specifically listed financial reasons as the reason. Fifty per cent of non-attenders had family incomes below $10,000 (of those who came $50 per cent were above $20,000) and 18.5 per cent were below $7,500 (as opposed to 5 per cent for those who came). The people in this group went to school like Stanford, Princeton, Yale, Carleton, or Duke and mostly had scholarships. It seems that $3,800 a year is even a substantial problem for the middle class.