The Admissions Office Strikes Back: The Process Is Fair

Editor's Note: The following response to a series of Crimson editorials on admissions policy also appears in this week's Harvard Gazette. It is printed here in full.

Recently The Crimson called on Harvard and Radcliffe to "abandon" the consideration given to alumni children and prospective varsity athletes in the college admissions process. Their recommendation arose from the fact that the average SAT scores for each of those groups has been somewhat lower than the overall class average. The Crimson has labelled the consideration given to alumni children (or legacies) as "anachronistic" and the consideration of athletic accomplishments an "unconscionable compromise of Harvard's touted academic standards." At one point they suggested that children of alumni were admitted "...to quote J.S. Mill, `merely for having taken the trouble to be born.'"

We strongly disagree with The Crimson's contentions. We believe they demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of the admissions policies that have helped ensure Harvard's place among the world's leading universities. We are particularly disappointed that this lack of understanding has been accompanied by insensitivity toward fellow undergraduates and a tendency to engage in negative stereotyping.

Crimson editorials have asserted that practices have been "uncovered," calling the admissions office "a notoriously secretive bureaucracy." Nothing could be further from the truth. There are more than 50 faculty members, deans and administrators involved in the admissions process. Discussion of candidates are careful and lengthy; the committee may spend hours on a single case. Decisions are made democratically with majority vote required for admission. The process has been studied by innumerable faculty committees, graduate students, and for many articles by The Crimson itself. Acting Dean of the Faculty Henry Rosovsky devoted an entire chapter to admissions in his recent book, The University: an Owner's Manual. Although one can disagree with our policies, one cannot responsibly claim they are secret.

Perhaps the greatest misunderstanding evidenced by The Crimson concerns the role of standardized testing in college admissions. Crimson editors appear to place great stock in SATs and seem to advocate a process that simply admits those with the highest test scores. During this century, the College has continually rejected the appeal of such a one-dimensional selection process, electing instead to identify a more diverse array of talents, skills and qualifications than test scores alone could do. As Bill Bender, Dean of Admissions from 1952-1960, put it in his final report:

In other words, my prejudice is for a Harvard College with a certain range and mixture and diversity in its student body--a college with some snobs and some Scandinavian farm boys who skate beautifully and some bright Bronx premeds, with some students who care passionately if unwisely (but who knows) about editing The Crimson or beating Yale, or who have an ambition to run a business and make a million, or to get elected to public office, a college in which not all the students have looked on school just as preparation for college, college as preparation for graduate school and graduate school as preparation for they know not what. Won't even our top 1 percent be better men and better scholars for being part of such a college?

The "top 1 percent" to which Bender referred are that relatively small group of candidates who show unmistakably clear signs of academic promise of national, even international, caliber. All of those highly gifted applicants are admitted unless there is a serious flaw in some other part of their application.

There is abundant evidence that the College has assembled an outstanding array of the nation's best young scholars. The College attracted 314 National Merit Scholarship winners last year; the colleges with the next largest numbers had 203, 169, 141 and 113 respectively. The three colleges enrolling the largest numbers of winners in the National Achivement Scholarship for African-American students were Harvard and Radcliffe with 55, followed by 34 at the second institution and 25 at the third. Of the 20 finalists in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, 11 enrolled this year at Harvard and Radcliffe. In the 31 years from 1960 through 1990, 240 Westinghouse finalists have rolled, making Harvard and Radcliffe by far their most frequent choice.

(We have also enrolled 90 of the 317 students who participated in the Research Science Institute of the Center for Excellence in Education in McLean, Virginia. Of this year's six National Advanced Placement Scholars, four chose Harvard and Radcliffe. Harvard undergraduates have won the Putnam Mathematics Competition for the fifth straight year. Harvard and Radcliffe students this year received 17 Rotary Scholarships; five Fulbright Scholarships; four Marshall Scholarships; and three Rhodes Scholarships. Harder to quantify is the remarkable rate of admission to first-rate graduate and professional schools achieved by Harvard and Radcliffe students.)

At the opposite end of the spectrum in our applicant pool are 10 to 20 percent of the applicants who would probably experience severe academic difficulty here. This means that there are approximately 10,000 qualified applicants to vie for the 2200 admit letters mailed in April (2200 are admitted to fill a class of 1600).

While SATs and other academic credentials are of interest to the Committee, there are many other factors that are considered. Certainly socioeconomic and ethnic diversity are important and so are musical and artistic talents and "distinguishing excellences" of nearly every sort.

We know that the academic credential for the 10,000 or so qualified applicants, except for those of the small group of exceptionally promising potential scholars, are much less likely to predict truly unusual academic accomplishments. There is relatively little difference over the four years in the grades achieved by those with SAT scores that differed by 50 or 100 points or more. Most students (well over 90 percent) will graduate and the substantial majority will graduate with honors grades.

For many decades, the Admissions Committee has chosen the person with truly unusual accomplishments over one who has demonstrated little achievement in any form even though he or she may have somewhat higher SATs. For example, the Committee might decide to sacrifice 150 SAT points and take a highly gifted musician who, by Crimson standards, is "less qualified." In fact, students who are highly active extracurricularly do better academically than those who are not. Extracurricular excellences usually indicate energy, drive and commitment that serve a student well during college and beyond. Extracurricular activities are also a principal means by which undergraduates come to know one another and educate one another in the broadest sense.

Thus extracurricular activities have long served as one "tip" factor in college admissions here and elsewhere, yet The Crimson seems to misunderstand how the term "tip" is used. "Tips" come into play at the point when the Committee is looking for positive reasons to admit a candidate, as relatively few of the many qualified candidates can be admitted. The shorthand terminology--"tip"--does not suggest that the "positive weight" given to a candidate can be quantified or otherwise expressed as a formula.

Successful candidates are "tipped" in for various reasons. Beyond the top scholars, the most typical "admit" would be one who is strong across the board academically, extracurricularly and in personal qualities. Each admitted student has, of course, sufficient academic credentials, positive school recommendations and supporting interviews along with whatever the tip or distinguishing excellence might be.