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The Making of a Meritocracy

By The Crimson Staff


Public perception that Harvard serves as the home for scions of America’s landed aristocracy is almost as old as the University itself. In recent years, Harvard has very publicly tried to combat this idea, pumping millions of dollars into financial aid initiatives, retailoring admissions policies, and embracing in general a more meritocratic ethos. Nevertheless, The Chronicle of Higher Education recently published a report suggesting that these efforts have done little to change student demographics. The New York Times Economix blog reposted the article, with a headline that could not be more damning: “How Elite Colleges Still Aren’t Diverse.”

The cacophony of condemnation had begun.

However, the lynchpin of The Chronicle’s argument, that Harvard has a woefully small percentage of Pell Grant recipients—a noted metric of economic diversity—is dangerously misleading. According to Jeff Neal, spokesperson for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, The Chronicle’s report includes Harvard Extension School students, “nontraditional students," over ninety percent of whom neither seek nor qualify for Pell Grants. Also, Neal points out, The Chronicle’s survey includes international students, who are not eligible for Pell Grants regardless of financial circumstance. Thus, the actual percentages have increased from 12.8 percent in fiscal year 2008 to 14.02 percent in 2010—or, if we exclude international students, from 15 percent in 2008 to 16.8 percent in 2010. Yale’s Dean of Undergraduate Admissions, Jeffrey Brenzel, voiced similar concerns with Yale’s numbers, telling the Yale Daily News that “there are substantial problems with the Chronicle’s use of data, about which a number of schools in the study have complained.”

In light of these findings, we see The Chronicle’s report as shoddy research at best and invidious fact-fudging at worst. Observers should look beyond individual and inaccurate statistics when evaluating Harvard’s commitment to socioeconomic diversity, and instead holistically consider all of the administration’s efforts to create a more diverse and inclusive undergraduate body.

By the numbers, few schools do as much to empower the middle and working classes. Harvard has embarked on an ambitious financial aid initiative that has brought scholarship to portions of the population that only decades ago were nearly shut out of higher education. Harvard’s broad financial aid program, which strives to prevent students from graduating indebted, has combated the recent hyperinflation of college fees that has mired many young students in debt and forced others away from college completely.

For peddling this antiquated “rich-get-richer” narrative, soaked in sensationalist rhetoric, flawed statistics, and ignorance of current initiatives is not only journalistically irresponsible, The Chronicle owes its readers a retraction. By selling papers (or online subscriptions) and propagating the illusion that some shadowy, reactionary Harvard aristocracy is out to preserve the ruling class by excluding those less wealthy, The Chronicle creates a false image of Harvard and disrespects the laudable efforts of the Financial Aid Office. More importantly, however, the piece obfuscates genuine socioeconomic problems and diverts scrutiny away from the schools that are actually promoting social stratification, to the detriment of students everywhere. There are real and troubling socioeconomic barriers preventing students from accessing higher education, but the actual culprits are schools with large endowments that still couple notoriously high tuitions with notoriously small financial aid programs.

Undoubtedly, Harvard’s work is not complete. The fight to make college a socially inclusive institution is a constant struggle, but one worth continuing. Although Pell Grant percentages have been rising, elite institutions are still behind the national average. Harvard should neither abandon nor relax its initiatives aimed at promoting socioeconomic diversity.

That said, simply blaming a lack of diversity in elite universities on the schools themselves ignores the crux of what is truly a multifaceted problem. Although it is certainly true that systemic problems exist in the American education system so pervasive that no Harvard initiative, no matter how well intentioned or ardently promoted, can correct them alone. Substituting student loans with grant aid will not reduce gang violence, nor will it replace an absentee parent. Ultimately, lower-income students are handicapped at all levels of the educational system in ways too intangible for Harvard to equalize on its own.

We challenge those who believe that Harvard only promotes the status quo to visit our campus. What they will find are students freely pursuing whatever piques their interest, unburdened by the financial ramifications of their choices. Of course, Harvard may not yet be the purely meritocratic bastion of scholarship we all wish for, but by every measure, it is getting there.

CORRECTION: April 5, 2011

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that The Chronicle of Higher Education's March 27 article, "Elite Colleges Fail to Gain More Students on Pell Grants," described the College has having a "small and declining" percentage of Pell Grant recipients. In fact, the article described the College only as having a small percentage, and noted that the share has increased since 2004-5.

CLARIFICATION: April 5, 2011

An earlier version of this article said that "The Chronicle’s report includes Harvard Extension School students, “nontraditional students," who neither seek nor qualify for Pell Grants." It has been revised to say, "The Chronicle’s report includes Harvard Extension School students, “nontraditional students," over ninety percent of whom neither seek nor qualify for Pell Grants."

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