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Which 5.9 Percent?

Despite progress, Harvard should re-evaluate how its admissions align with its values

By The Crimson Staff

As one of the nation’s premier institutions of higher learning, Harvard is naturally selective in its admissions. A 5.9 percent acceptance rate reflects that. The precise nature of Harvard’s selectivity, however, is a matter of ongoing debate. Harvard aims to build a class of students with high SAT scores, excellent grades, and impressive slates of extracurricular activities. It also aims to build a diverse class, wherein individuals from a wide variety of backgrounds enhance the educational experience of the student body as a whole. With an increasingly competitive pool of applicants, Harvard can achieve this second goal without sacrificing the academic quality of its students. Accordingly, admissions officers at schools like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton wield enormous power, even if they commit to a fair application of academic criteria: For which precocious 17- and 18-year-olds should they throw open the gates?

“Diversity” is a noble goal, but it is also an ambiguous one. In sorting through that ambiguity, the College can and should further its mission as an educational institution facilitating equality of opportunity. Recent increases in the racial and socioeconomic diversity of admitted classes provide reason for celebration. But the designers of Harvard’s admissions policy have a number of kinks and contradictions to hammer out if the school’s admissions philosophy is to be consistent.

First, the positive. Of the 1,031 regular and 992 early applicants receiving offers of admission to the Class of 2018, a record number of students came from minority backgrounds. African American students made up 11.9 percent of those admitted, and Latino students 13 percent. Asian Americans comprised 19.7 percent of admits, and Native Americans and Native Hawaiians 1.9 percent.

This increased diversity was made possible in part by Harvard’s increasingly generous provision of financial aid. This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative. As a result of this overhaul, families earning less than $65,000 per year pay nothing for their children to attend Harvard. According to the HFAI website, 90 percent of U.S. families would pay the same or lower tuition at Harvard versus a state school. And the College has rightly recognized that money-fueled imbalances affect the decision to apply in the first place. Low-income outreach programs like the Harvard College Connection now leverage social media to provide socioeconomically disadvantaged students with information about their college and financial aid options.

But there remain important causes for concern with Harvard’s admissions process. A mere 45 percent of admits to the Class of 2018 were female, which represents a significant decrease from the more equal gender distribution of previous years. Dean Fitzsimmons attributes this discrepancy to two causes: first, to the fact that more males than females applied to the College; and second, to a widening interest in concentrations at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, such as engineering, computer science, and applied mathematics. But more available data on the trend in applicant gender would indicate whether this year’s discrepancy reflects a new change in applicant makeup this year or a conscious shift by the College. We wonder if such a slight toward a traditionally marginalized group would be tolerated so easily if that group were not women but, say, an underrepresented minority.

The ongoing practice of privileging candidates whose mothers or fathers attended Harvard also continues to trouble us. While Harvard congratulates itself for its admission of students who are the first in their families to attend college, and many question the legitimacy of race-based affirmative action programs, legacy preference goes largely unchallenged in the public discourse. Granting an additional advantage to legacy applicants—who are disproportionately white and of high socioeconomic status—is strangely at odds with efforts to increase the number of African American and Latino students at the College.

Legacy preference encourages alumni “engagement” with Harvard, the argument goes, increasing their willingness to donate to the University. We are not naive—we understand that money plays an important role in Harvard’s operations, and that the parents of legacies help foot the tuition bills of less fortunate students. In the past, we have called for Harvard to more definitively measure and articulate the opaque benefits—legacy preference should continue only if the College as a whole unambiguously stands to gain from its effects. We know it is possible to operate a world-class educational institution without favoring children of alumni: MIT, Oxford, and Cambridge have no legacy preference. A stronger foundation for University development would rest on genuine interest in an equally-accessed educational mission, rather than on familial connections.

Moreover, the efforts implicit in Harvard’s admissions policy should not end at matriculation. Developments over the course of the past semester highlight the importance of making all members of a diverse student body feel included when they arrive on campus. The “I, Too, Am Harvard,” campaign brought to light the discrimination felt by African American students. An anonymous op-ed on the subject of sexual assault made waves. There were nationwide calls imploring universities to do more to prevent and investigate sexual assault, a necessary measure if women at Harvard and other institutions are to feel safe on campus—now more of a challenge with women a minority here, by a 10 percentage-point spread in the incoming class.

The College pays lip service to diversity and meritocracy and, as the ethnic composition of the Class of 2018 shows, it sometimes follows through. Harvard nonetheless has a long way to go if its admissions practices and the environment it fosters for the members of its community are to align with the goal of educating the deserving—regardless of race, sex, or socioeconomic status—and shaping a better society.

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