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Harvard, to the Highest Bidder

If the Ivy gates are locked, just buy yourself a key

By Cormac A. Early

How much is a place at Harvard worth? Hard to say, of course, but if a recently published book by Daniel L. Golden ’78, “The Price of Admissions: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges—and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates” is any indicator, the answer probably ranges in the millions.

It might arouse the ire of many that someone like Jared C. Kushner ’03, despite what could politely be described as modest academic credentials according to the book, gained admission in the wake of a $2.5 million donation from his billionaire father. But even more galling than the thought of filthy lucre corrupting Harvard’s cherished meritocracy is the thought that the same spot could have been sold for a lot more. Filthy lucre, after all, funds useful things like stem cell research and financial aid. Selling our soul, prima facie, can be worth it—as long as we get the right price. The best way to do so is to have an auction.

Unpalatable, perhaps, but certainly preferable to the status quo. Harvard already more or less sells admission to a select few, but the process is clothed in a variety of face-saving guises, all of them needlessly inefficient.

Legacy preference, for example, gives the children of alumni what the admissions office website calls “a further look.” This keeps alumni happy, and ideally generous, and gives the college a way to sell places to the children of (some of) the super wealthy without saying so. But most legacies don’t need a leg up, so there’s less leverage to extract cash.

A far more efficient operation would forgo the donations of the small number of disappointed alumni whose children don’t get in on their own merits, and allow all those interested to bid for a small number of spots in the class, subject to a few minimal academic criteria. After all, as Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 is fond of repeating, every student at Harvard can do the work.

The benefits of the direct approach are twofold. First of all, it should make more money. Hopefully quite a lot more, since the commodity in question has high social cachet, and the bidders, many of whom have more money than they know what to do with, will be in direct competition with each other, and able to increase their bids accordingly.

The second benefit is that the University will be in a stronger position to resist earmarks on donations. Many an endowed chair has been created in anticipation of preferential treatment for the generous donor’s offspring—but the money might be better spent on expanding financial aid, or funding study abroad. In an open trade, Harvard could demand more scope to spend the money as it sees fit.

Needless to say, it could be uncomfortable for the student in question to know that her place was bought for her, but with the appropriate non-disclosure agreements, and perhaps delayed payment for a few years, no one need ever be the wiser about any specific case.

Of course, it might cause a certain amount of embarrassment to be so openly mercenary, but ultimately, for a school dedicated to veritas, a little honesty wouldn’t go astray.

Cormac A. Early ’09, a Crimson editorial editor, is a social studies concentrator in Eliot House.

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