Leaving a Legacy of Equal Access

In a speech to university donors this month, University President Drew G. Faust reiterated her commitment to “making Harvard more open and accessible” and drawing a student body “from the widest possible pool.” As a current undergraduate, a soon-to-be-graduate, and recent alumnus of the College, we couldn’t agree more with those goals. We have all benefited from Harvard’s vibrant community—one crucial to sustaining the critical inquiry that drives Harvard and forging the leaders that Harvard strives to produce.

What helps Harvard also helps the world: By increasing access to students from underrepresented backgrounds—those who stand to gain the most from a Harvard education—Harvard becomes an engine for innovation and social mobility. We are increasingly worried, however, that Harvard’s enrollment is dramatically skewed toward certain segments of the population.

Socioeconomically speaking, the College doesn’t look like the United States at all. Roughly half of the student body is drawn from the top 5 percent of the income bracket, and about as many of us come from the top 1 percent as from the bottom 50 percent. Meanwhile, high-talent, low-income students are persistently overlooked in the application process. These figures suggest that, despite its world-class Financial Aid Initiative, Harvard is falling short of the accessibility it aspires to.

Wealthy students are overrepresented at Harvard in part because of admissions practices that actively favor them. In particular, Harvard continues to give admissions advantages to “legacies”—the children of alumni.

The administration is reluctant to say much about legacy preference, but the little we do know is troubling: In 2011, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons told The Crimson that 30 percent of legacy applicants were accepted to Harvard, as opposed to a rate under 6 percent for non-legacies in 2014. Second, legacies come overwhelmingly from the upper strata of the income distribution. That is why education scholars have dubbed legacy preference “affirmative action for the rich.”

Harvard offers essentially two responses to criticisms of legacy preference. First, Harvard says that legacy preference barely matters in admissions decisions—it’s a “feather on the scale,” a “tie-breaker,” or a “tip factor.” But, at the same time, Harvard also claims that alumni loyalty—including, crucially, alumni donations—would falter in the absence of special consideration for legacies. In short, Harvard suggests that legacy preference is at once a non-factor in admissions and a driving factor behind alumni generosity.

It’s worth considering how Harvard should and shouldn’t raise money. We celebrate generous donors by dedicating buildings, scholarships, and professorships in their names. But there are things Harvard would never do, like guarantee a magna cum laude degree to the child of a high-paying donor, or make legacy status a “tie-breaker” in deciding a course grade.

These policies would surely grow Harvard’s endowment, but only by compromising the values that give that endowment purpose. Bestowing an advantage in admissions is no different. The inherent unfairness of accounting for bloodline in admissions is presumably why prestigious universities around the world—including Oxford, Cambridge, MIT, and Caltech—have shunned legacy preference. And there is a deep irony in the fact that Harvard justifies unfair admissions practices on the premise that they help sustain its need-blind admissions program.

Conversations about legacy preference often devolve into debates about who “deserves” to be at Harvard. Our concern is access, not desert. Affordability is one component of access, but so is admission, and equal access requires fair admissions practices. Legacy preference flies in the face of that requirement, compounding existing inequalities and harkening back to some of Harvard’s ugliest traditions of exclusion. Today, legacy continues to function as a barrier, this time in the name of fundraising.

We’re skeptical that the Harvard community would be less generous if its children weren't given special treatment. In fact, we believe the opposite: We’re less inclined to support Harvard when it employs unfair admissions policies, and research shows no correlation between alumni giving and legacy preference. As proud members of the Harvard community—one of us, Ben, a legacy himself—we’d prefer that Harvard leave a legacy of equal access, not sacrifice its values for the sake of its endowment. And we think many others feel the same way.

Over the next several months, we will create an organization to engage seriously with the question of access at Harvard. We will enlist students, alumni, and professors to speak up and show the administration that fair access matters to our community. And we will work in tandem with other campuses developing similar initiatives. To stay apprised of, and participate in, this nascent movement, please visit FairAndEqualAccess.org.

Ending legacy preference will be an important step for improving access to Harvard, but it will not be a complete solution. Other changes might include the removal of any inquiry into ability to pay during the application process, the imposition of a complete firewall between Harvard’s development and admissions offices, and the implementation of more robust financial aid programs for middle class students.

Harvard has an opportunity to lead on this issue, and we believe it should—not only because an open and accessible Harvard is a better Harvard but also because ensuring fair and equal access is simply the right thing to do.

Brianna J. Suslovic ’16 is a joint anthropology and studies of women, gender, and sexuality concentrator in Winthrop House. Tara Raghuveer ’14 is a social studies concentrator in Currier House and a former Undergraduate Council president. Benjamin B.H. Wilcox ’13 is a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University.

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