The Admissions Office Strikes Back: The Process Is Fair

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.