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Admissions, Unzipped

Application review should be class conscious, not need blind

By Daniel J. Hemel

The 20,000-odd high school students who received admissions decisions in the mail from Harvard last month could have learned a lot about their prospects without even opening the envelope.

No, I’m not talking about whether it was thick or thin. I’m talking about the five-digit ZIP code on the front.

Next to SATs and GPAs, ZIP codes are among the most important digits in the admissions numbers game. “You can tell a lot often by a person’s ZIP code,” according to Admissions Dean William R. Fitzsimmons ’67. “We can determine in a rough kind of way if students come from a socioeconomically disadvantaged background.”

Harvard looks for applicants who have overcome financial hardships, and ZIP codes form just one piece of the puzzle. In some cases, applicants also share information about their family’s financial situation in essays or interviews. With the help of Harvard economists, admissions officers use micro-level Census data to glean “further information about candidates’ socioeconomic backgrounds,” according to financial aid director Sally C. Donahue.

The irony is that Harvard already has “further information about candidates’ socioeconomic backgrounds.” Financial aid applicants submit information on whether their family receives food stamps and welfare checks, how much their parents earn each month, and how much their families spend on rent, electricity, and healthcare. Until admissions decisions, all of this information sits unused in the financial aid files—just steps from the room where reviewers decide applicants’ fates.

So while reviewers use ZIP codes to “determine in a rough kind of way” whether applicants have faced financial hardship, they do not use the aid forms to establish in a precise kind of way whether applicants have encountered economic obstacles.

What accounts for these Byzantine rules? Since the 1960s, Harvard has advertised that its admissions process is “need blind.” Reviewers don’t see applicants’ financial aid files, so Harvard can guarantee that it’s not just cherry-picking students who can pay full-price. By contrast, other schools (including Tufts) routinely reject some applicants from low-income families because the financial aid burden would be too heavy.

But in a society with wide wealth inequalities, a truly meritocratic admissions process wouldn’t be “need blind”—it would be “class conscious.” High-price SAT tutors and admissions consultants already tilt the balance toward upper-middle-class applicants. A meritocratic system would restore that balance by giving a tip to applicants who can’t afford these advantages.

A “class-conscious” admissions policy is not just a matter of fairness. Diversity—including socioeconomic diversity—enriches Harvard’s intellectual life. Just imagine how much poorer an Ec 10 section discussion on the earned income tax credit would be if all the participants’ parents took home six-figure salaries.

Of course, Harvard’s admissions officers know all this, which is why they turn to ZIP codes and other data to identify low-income applicants. In some cases, according to Donahue, officers even look at whether a student sought a waiver from the $65 application fee. But detailed information on family finances remains off-limits. So Harvard isn’t actually “need blind;” it’s “need vision-impaired.”

The College is already doing an admirable job of promoting socioeconomic diversity at the initial stage of the process: ZIP codes and Census data help identify low-income students, and Harvard courts them enthusiastically. And after decisions are made, Harvard exempts low-income parents from tuition payments. The problem emerges at the intermediate stage: the application review.

If ZIP codes and other data are accurate predictors of socioeconomic background, then it’s simply misleading to say (as the College does) that admissions are need blind. Need is known. If, on the other hand, the portrait painted by current information is imprecise, then Harvard is falling short in its effort to factor financial hardship into admissions.

Yes, reviewers can learn a lot about an applicant without opening financial aid files. But by looking inside, they might learn even more.

Daniel J. Hemel ’07 is a social studies concentrator in Lowell House and was The Crimson’s managing editor from February 2006 until January 2007.

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