A Dream Transferred

On March 21 Max, a student at Bunker Hill Community College, received a letter from Harvard explaining, with regret, their decision to postpone transfer applications. Presumably the decision not to admit transfer students this spring was the result of much deliberation, but not enough consideration was given to the consequences of finding out so late in the year. Max’s story is exceptional in many ways; his frustration and confusion at Harvard’s belated policy change is demonstrative of the degree to which this decision requires further review and explanation.

Max came from France in September 2005. As a basketball recruit at Notre Dame Preparatory School, Max looked forward to creating a successful life for himself here in America. After graduation, a run of bad luck left Max without a stable place to live, and, in the fall, he began staying at the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter whenever he could secure a bed. In spite of the hardships, Max retained his drive and motivation, and enrolled as a full time student at Bunker Hill Community College. He continued to play basketball, and currently works to pay for his college education.

But Max had higher aspirations, and he sought to transfer. Harvard presented Max with the opportunity to realize his aspirations: to receive an education and maybe get a chance to play some competitive basketball—and it was affordable thanks to the generous financial assistance provided by the college. After speaking to volunteers at the shelter, visiting Harvard facilities, researching classes and arranging meetings with the basketball coaching staff, Max began the transfer application process to Harvard College. The long and complicated transfer application required writing two comprehensive essays, compiling a transcript drawn from two countries, and drawing necessary documents from his home in France and schools in the States (which cost him a 75 dollar translation fee). Not only was Max able to pull all this information together and submit it along with the 65 dollar application fee, in addition to the 43 dollars the College Board charges to submit SAT scores, but he was able to do it all without a stable home or support resources. Max knew Harvard was a long shot, but he also recognized that Harvard could be affordable for him, and that passing up this opportunity would be one he would always regret.

But his hopes were compromised. Citing a lack of space for transfer students in upper class Houses, Harvard opted rather to cancel all applications outright and refund the 65-dollar application fee. But after all the time and emotional energy Max and countless other transfer applicants had invested into their applications, a cash refund is hardly adequate compensation. Lack of space in upper class houses is old news, of which the administration had been aware well in advance of the transfer application deadline. Whatever their prospects of actually gaining admission, transfer candidates deserve an apology from the administration for the mishandling of information.

Would the burden of an additional 40 or so students spread over the twelve Houses really have been so great? If so, can we expect the administration to also do away with the infamous Z-list, a small group of admits, often legacies from privileged backgrounds, that Harvard asks to take a year off before they can matriculate?

In either case, the administration ought to be more forthcoming about the basis for their decision, which came well after the transfer application deadlines of other schools. In recent years, Harvard has accepted more transfer applicants than Yale or Princeton (who don’t allow transfer applicants at all) on the basis that students who transfer in tend to have higher grade point averages at Harvard than students who come in as freshmen. Moreover, transfer students add a diversity of background and experience to the student body. This certainly could be said of Max. A French kid who left his family to come to high school in America and ended up on the streets of Cambridge, Max never lost his drive and was always optimistic about what lay ahead.

Over a thousand transfer applicants didn’t even have their applications considered this year. For many of these students, Harvard’s decision may be only a minor setback, but for others in less stable situations, like Max’s, the decision is potentially life altering. We don’t pretend to tell Harvard whom it can and cannot admit; ultimately, the housing crunch meant that some hard decisions would have to be made. Nonetheless, the current applicant pool deserves more than just a reimbursement. The damage has been done, but Harvard still needs to disclose some more compelling reasons for putting an end to transfer applications.

Adam S. Travis ’10 is a social studies concentrator in Mather House. Akshata Kadagathur ’11 lives in Wigglesworth Hall. They both volunteer at the Cambridge homeless shelter.