Students Unsatisfied

Harvard’s large concentrations should heed results of satisfaction survey

When last year’s graduating seniors were asked to take a survey detailing satisfaction with their concentration, many large departments, like economics and government, received mediocre marks. While it may be tempting to explain away the survey’s lopsided results with such phenomena as, say, students without a particular passion for Pigovian welfare economics selecting the concentration for its lucrative exit opportunities, the fact remains that many Harvard students are not satisfied with their course of study. Harvard’s large concentrations should take the survey’s results seriously and look to smaller concentrations as a model.

In order to best learn from this survey, the College should note that two main factors loosely correlate with a concentration’s popularity: the concentration’s size and the category in which it falls within the arts and sciences. The division with the most satisfied concentrators was the humanities, but even within that category, larger concentrations did relatively poorly. Two of the college’s largest concentrations, economics and government, received notably negative reviews from their concentrators. The exception to these trends was the small concentration of music, which received the lowest satisfaction rating of all concentrations.

Perhaps even more disconcerting than the survey itself, however, are the reactions from some faculty members within poorly performing departments. In several cases, these faculty members, rather than take responsibility for their department’s performance, blamed external factors. The Director of Undergraduate Studies for the Department of Economics, Jeffrey A. Miron, believes that his department’s low satisfaction ratings are an unavoidable by-product of the fact that some concentrations are likely to attract students for reasons of utility: “I think some majors tend to get students because the students love those disciplines, and other majors get students because it’s a useful thing to do,” he said.

Perhaps there is some truth to these explanations, but as the government department’s Director of Undergraduate Studies Cheryl B. Welch rightly said, “that doesn’t mean a big department can’t do better.” Harvard’s large concentrations should not simply shrug off this survey’s results as unfortunate but unavoidable; they should work to create better experiences for their students. Smaller concentrations, many of which did very well on the survey, often feature strong faculty-student interaction and vibrant advising systems. The life sciences have seen an increase in popularity after splitting into a number of smaller concentrations and implementing a more personalized advising system. All concentrations should note the positive effects that such endeavors have yielded and enact similar programs.

Before taking any serious action, of course, the College and its departments should carry out more detailed and accurate surveys of student experience that control for factors like size and reason for concentrating. Even so, poorly performing departments should see the recent concentration satisfaction survey as a wake-up call, and they should contemplate serious changes instead of shunting responsibility onto external factors.

Harvard students should not have to sacrifice satisfaction with their studies if they wish to study a large concentration like economics or government. To the contrary, Harvard’s goal should be to offer a positive concentration experience for all of its students. Taking the recent concentration satisfaction survey seriously and enacting systemic changes per its results would be a key step toward realizing this goal.