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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 " 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.

A student might be "tipped in" because of an unusual socioeconomic or ethnic background. Harvard began in the 1930s with the National Scholars Program to seek talented students from all socioeconomic backgrounds and since the 1960s has made special efforts to seek students from minority backgrounds. Indeed, the Harvard admissions process was cited as a model in the United States Supreme Court's 1978 decision in the Bakke case.

We should also note that after a two-year review of Asian-American admissions, the Office for Civil Rights of the United States Department of Education concluded that Harvard was in full compliance with federal law prohibiting discrimination. Yet The Crimson apparently does not concur with Lauro Cavazos, U.S. Secretary of Education, who summed up the review by saying: "As a nation we are dedicated to the principles of justice and equity. Based on our investigation we have found that Harvard observes those principles."

(The freshman class this year shows unprecedented ethnic diversity. As has been the case each year for well over a decade, there is a record number of Asian Americans (nearly 20 percent of the class). African Americans comprise 7.9 percent of the class, while Hispanic students make up 6.6 percent. An additional 0.5 percent are Native Americans. We have, by any measure, the strongest group of minority students in the country. The College benefits enormously by having such a large and talented group of minority students in its student body. Not only is the quality of the educational environment richer and fuller when students from many different backgrounds educate one another, but Harvard and Radcliffe have the opportunity to take part in the education of students who will undoubtedly be leaders in their communities in the years to come.)

A variety of "tips" are employed during our admissions process to insure fair treatment for Asian Americans. In addition to the fact that a "tip" can provide a positive reason to admit a candidate, we also refer to a "tip" for candidates who, for a wide variety of reasons, are given special consideration in the admissions process. That special consideration may take the form of recruitment, through, for examples, the use of direct mail to encourage Asian-American students to apply, travel by Asian-American undergraduates to make presentations at high schools where there are large numbers of prospective Asian-American candidates, and special recruitment efforts in April. In reviewing applicants, individual readers employ special sensitivity to detect and neutralize possible bias in materials submitted, such as teacher recommendations.

In addition, a "fourth reader" is designated whose responsibliity it is to maintain an overview on Asian-American folder evaluation, recruiting and follow-up in April after students are admitted. (The term "fourth reader" refers to the fact that we normally have three readers assigned to each applicant.) The "fourth reader" sits on the subcommittees from which more than 50 percent of Asian-American students apply, reading a significant number of Asian-American applications on these subcommittees either as an area representative, second reader, or as the "fourth reader." This person also serves as a "fourth reader" on Asian-American folders from all other subcommittees and participates in all the full committee meetings after reviewing all Asian-American applicants on all dockets beforehand.

As is the case with many students who may receive "tips" of one kind or another, admitted Asian Americans are often strong enough on other admissions criteria that their ethnicity does not need to be mentioned in "writing up" or presenting their admissions cases. But, as our Asian-American undergraduate recruiters know, recent immigrants, those from modest economic backgrounds and those, regardless of economic circumstances, who have been particularly engaged as leaders in Asian American community activities can be "tipped" in. The Crimson is correct in noting that this kind of tip is not as quantifiable as some other kinds of tips, but a significant number of undergraduates are here in part because of such considerations. Furthermore, although it is not possible to distinguish precisely between the effects of the various forms of special consideration outlined above, it is clear that our recruitment efforts are at least partly responsible for the great increases in the numbers and diversity of Asian American students at Harvard and Radcliffe.

The overlapping of attributes in candidates makes it very difficult to quantify "tips." In admissions, we consider one candidate at a time, aware that each person, regardless of ethnicity, has a unique combination of academic, extracurricular and personal qualifications along with a unique family socioeconomic background. In the end we admit individuals, not abstract attributes. We have no quotas or goals, and regard our process as successful if we have responded thoroughly and fairly to each individual applicant.

The recent federal study of Asian-American admissions at Harvard confirmed what our office had reported in a public statement six months before the Office of Civil Rights opened its review--that differences in admission rates over 10 years between whites (17.4 percent) and Asian Americans (13.2 percent) were due to long-established "tips" for alumni children and prospective varsity athletes, considerations leading to higher admissions rates.

As The Crimson once again called on Harvard to "abandon" tips for alumni children and prospective varsity athletes, the United States Department of Education saw it differently. To quote their report:

OCR finds that the reasons or goals provided by Harvard for giving preferences to children of alumni and recruited athletes are legitimate institutional goals, and not a pretext for discrimination against Asian Americans. Additionally, Harvard has asserted, and OCR accepts, that there are no alternatives to these preferences that could effectively accomplish the same legitimate goals.

Alumni participate in the admissions process itself by recruiting prospective and admitted candidates, conducting the official interview required of applicants, and handling logistics of visits by admissions officers. This alumni involvement is coordinated by the 250 Schools and Scholarships Committees around the world. Approximately 4000 alumni serve on Schools and Scholarships Committees. Their work is an integral part of our recruitment and admissions process, contributing in important ways to our success.

Financial support from alumni is a vital component of financial aid and the University's academic programs. Without this support we would not have been able to maintain the current need-blind admission policy. Last year, for example, over $36 million were contributed by alumni to the Harvard College Fund. Restricted scholarship fund (donors "restricted" their use to scholarships) are the largest single source of our financial aid budget. Very nearly all of those funds--that together yield more than half of college financial aid-were established by alumni. In fact nine out of every 10 scholarship dollars are provided by alumni.

(Alumni also help in the governance of the University and assist the University in a variety of other ways. More than 35 alumni now serve on the Board of Overseers and the Corporation. the two governing boards of the University. In addition several hundred alumni serve on the 60 visiting committees to the University which review the programs of the various schools and major academic and administrative departments. The 307 members of the national committee of the Harvard Alumni Association (HAA) convene in Cambridge three times a year, and comprise an important link between alumni and the University. The HAA currently lists 37,616 dues-paying members of Harvard and Radcliffe clubs, which work with the University in a variety of ways, including raising scholarship funds and sponsoring Schools and Scholarships Committees.)

Alumni are of critical importance to the admissions process and to the functioning of the University as a whole. All in all, the unstinting generosity of our alumni--of time, energy, money and intellectual resources--is essential to maintaining the excellence of the institution and it has been a longstanding policy of the University to admit the son or daughter of an alumnus when all other factors are substantially equal. We believe that this policy has been carried out fairly and evenly over the years and that the children of alumni are not only well qualified academically, as the OCR report indicated, but also perform in outstanding ways throughout their careers here.

The Crimson cited the fact that alumni children averaged about 35 points lower on their combined SAT verbal and math scores than a control group consisting of all who were not legacies, athletes, or minority students. Thirty-five points out of a possible 1600 is a very modest difference. More specifically, admitted alumni children averaged 674 on their verbal scores and 695 on the math, compared to 687 verbal and 718 math for the other group. This kind of difference would not produce significant differences in academic attainment during college.

The Crimson also pointed to "statistically significant" differences in academic, extra-curricular, personal, teacher, counselor and alumni ratings, as well as class rank and scores. But our Quantitative Reasoning courses have shown people that differences can be "statistically significant" yet not large enough to be meaningful. The actual differences in the ratings turn out to be approximately 0.2 points or less on five or six point scales. For example, the extracurricular rating for alumni children was 2.52, compared to 2.43 for the others (one is high on those scales). Not only are such differences insignificant but the fact is that the overall academic and extracurricular credentials presented by Harvard and Radcliffe legacies are so strong as to make them targets of recruitment efforts by other leading colleges.

Also highly recruited and outstanding in national terms are our students who take part in intercollegiate athletics. Not only are they fully qualified for admissions, as the OCR report indicated, but they are a highly diverse group socioeconomically, ethnically and extracurricularly. Their scores would "place them in the top percentiles of all students..." as OCR noted and among our intercollegiate athletes are students who achieve at the very highest levels academically.

The number of students who are admitted are winnowed down from a much larger number who initially express an interest in Harvard and Radcliffe. Only those student-athletes who have academic credentials that would qualify them for admission are encouraged to apply. Many superb athletes, when told that their chances of being admitted are poor, do not apply. Admitted student-athletes averaged 603 on the verbal SAT and 670 on the math and 92.3 in their high school grades. On the various five and six point rating scales they differed from the other group by only an average of 0.38 points. As with alumni children, while those differences are statistically significant, the magnitude does not suggest the major differences between athletes and other students that The Crimson asserts.

The Crimson over the years has made a point of reporting on the correlation between SAT scores and socioeconomic background. To rely on test scores even more than we do now would certainly lead us back toward the days when most students at Harvard and Radcliffe were rich and advantaged. We assume The Crimson would not favor such an outcome.

But in this instance, they seem to have forgotten that--unlike many of our students who attended the best public and private secondary schools offering the finest educational resources--significant numbers of athletes did not have such advantages that would likely have increased their SAT scores. Nevertheless, intercollegiate athletes do well academically at Harvard. While much public furor exists over the poor graduation rates of athletes at many colleges, varsity athletes here not only graduate, but a majority do so with academic honors. Studies have shown that athletes here report high levels of satisfaction with the college experience and that they are likely to be unusually accomplished in their professional lives. Their contributions to society later are well-documented and one needs only to look at the recent elections in Massachusetts to see two former Harvard athletes among those elected to the highest offices in the state.

Athletic teams today form so integral part of the college scene across the United States that they are largely taken for granted. The roots of an athletic program integrated with an academic one are derived from the ancient Greek ideal of sound mind and sound body. It is now so ingrained as part of American college life that students and alumni alike have come to expect varsity sports at colleges.

While over the years the Harvard community has separated itself from what it considers to be the excesses of today's "big-time" college athletics, it continues to maintain a comprehensive intercollegiate, intramural and individual sports program. Perhaps equally important, it provides leadership to the country by demonstrating that one can still have a strong athletic program and even win national championships without offering academic scholarships. Some of our very best students, including those who did not play sports, chose to come here in part because of the "collegiate" atmosphere that our varsity athletic programs help to provide.

We also attract some superb student-athletes, some of whom came from modest economic backgrounds and can add much needed socioeconomic diversity, because we can offer a Division I athletic expereicne. While we do not provide the athletic scholarships offered by many outstanding private institutions and great state universities, we can enroll some superb individuals who can make a real difference to the lives of their fellow undergraduates.

We are concerned about the potential divisiveness of The Crimson's approach that suggests some undergraduates should not be here because of their SATs. We would remind all members of the community that in disaggregating any student body, some segments of undergraduates will have higher test scores than others. If we found that french horn players had lower SAT scores, would they be singled out next on this slippery slope?

Our admissions policies have been carefully discussed and debated over the years by all members of the Harvard and Radcliffe community. The resulting admissions procedures have helped to produce a student body with the strongest potential scholars in the country as well as individual with many other excellences. Help from alumni in admissions recruiting and financial aid has made it possible to attract the most talented students from every segment of society. We are fortunate to have a highly diverse group of very able students, with a wide variety of talents, and the kinds of personal strengths that make them fascinating roommates, dining hall conversationalists, extracurricular enthusiasts and classroom participants. Our student body receives high praise from nearly every quarter, including The Insider's Guide to Colleges,, produced by the Yale Daily News. With that kind of leadership from New Haven, can The Crimson be far behind? William R. Fitzsimmons '67   Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid   Marlyn McGrath Lewis '70   Director of Admissions   James S. Miller   Director of Financial Aid   Jennifer Davis Carey   Senior Admissions Officer   Lewison Lee Lem   Elizabeth B. Yong   Admissions Officers

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