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New Territory: Pathways and Barriers to a Harvard Major

Harvard offers 49 concentrations, but students often outline their academic paths before they set foot on campus

For Benjamin C. Barnett ’17, the first and only student from his public high school in rural Kentucky to apply to Harvard, studying the humanities in college never crossed his mind. Even before he arrived on campus in 2013, Barnett knew he would pursue a pre-medical track and a corresponding degree in the sciences.

He attributes this in part to the courses his high school offered. Aside from AP English and AP Spanish, the only Advanced Placement classes he had the option to take were in mathematics and science. Somewhat naturally, according to Barnett, the latter subject area ended up piquing his interest.

Joshua Blecher-Cohen
Joshua Blecher-Cohen '16, a Classics and Philosophy joint concentrator, studies in the Adams House Library.

“I’m sure there are definitely things in my high school that caused me to like chemistry more than other stuff,” Barnett said. “Had there been AP Latin or AP Psychology or something, I probably would have taken those classes and would have found out whether I was interested or not.”

“I didn’t even get a chance to know if I liked psychology or Latin,” he added.

When he ended up in the Chemistry department, Barnett was not alone in choosing an area of study he had explored before coming to college and that he thought would best prepare him for his career. While Harvard offers 49 concentrations—ranging from the History of Art and Architecture to Human Developmental and Regenerative Biology to the new Theater, Dance, and Media program—students often outline their academic paths before they set foot on campus.

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Year after year, a plurality of students choose to study economics, and an increasing number computer science, many with expectations that those plans will catapult them into top-tier business schools or lucrative consulting jobs, a fact that some people in and outside the academy decry. Experts suggest that students from underprivileged backgrounds in particular might feel pressured to pursue courses of study with clear professional paths.

But students’ concentration choices are influenced by factors other than concerns about their careers. Some students feel underprepared to study certain fields—especially those in the humanities—because they were not exposed to them in high school or lacked the resources to explore them on their own.

A recent report by a College working group on diversity even suggested that some fields, unintentionally or otherwise, repel “women and underrepresented minorities.” The report calls on departments to create clearer and more accessible paths for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“There are pressures on individuals to avoid certain concentrations that they might want to do,” said Howard E. Gardner ’65, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. “There are powerful messages in society.”

A DOCUMENTED TREND

English department chair W. James Simpson says a rags-to-riches story has colored the Western view of higher education for hundreds of years.

According to this narrative, great-grandparents will come from nowhere and start a business with little interest in education. Their children, the story goes, will go to school but receive wholly practical training to build up the family business. The next generations might also take over the business, but with an eye toward providing their children with the best education money can buy.

“And what does that child do?” asks Simpson, the first in his family to attend college. “That child tends to repudiate the commercial and the industrial—the wholly pragmatic culture of both their parents and their ancestors. That child chooses to study the liberal arts.”

“Now I’m actually describing my own quadri-generational story,” Simpson added.

Research on students and their educational choices tends to support the trend Simpson describes—that students from underprivileged backgrounds gravitate toward seemingly vocational undergraduate degrees in fields like economics, biology, and computer science, while their well-off counterparts might study art history, literature, or Latin.

Earlier this year, writer Joe Pinsker argued in The Atlantic that “Rich Kids Study English,” citing data from the National Center for Education Statistics that found that a student’s family household income correlates with choice of study. According to the data, the mean household income of students who study English is near the $100,000 mark, while the mean income of parents of students who pursue medicine and nursing is about $78,000. Students who obtain pre-professional degrees in areas such as law enforcement and firefighting come from households with a mean income of just under $67,000.

“If you just look at the raw data, you do see that the young adults who come from well-off backgrounds tend to major in the humanities,” said Kim Weeden, a sociology professor at Cornell who interpreted the National Center for Education Statistics data in the Atlantic piece.

Weeden attributes this trend to four factors: a student’s family income; the selectivity of the college the student attends and the opportunities it accordingly provides; the student’s post-undergraduate expectations of attending a professional school, such as law school or medical school; and the student’s attempt to counter anxieties about what happens if those plans go awry.

The societal rhetoric and assumptions about post-college life exist on both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum, according to Gardner. While students from underprivileged backgrounds envision their undergraduate degrees as launching points into the world of Wall Street or Silicon Valley, their wealthier peers may choose concentrations to please their multi-millionaire parents or not to have to apologize to anyone for a choosing a vocational path in the liberal arts.

“It’s not like anyone is off the hook from pressure,” Gardner said. “Kids who go to Harvard panic if they don’t do the ‘right’ major.”

MANY OPTIONS, WITH LIMITS

Beyond thoughts on their future careers, students at Harvard share anecdotes suggesting that their backgrounds and prior academic experiences inform what they study at the College. From the get go, they say they have limited options that are both accessible and appeal to them.

In particular, while some private and elite or specialized public high schools that send many students to Harvard offer their students a wide range of languages and teach disciplines such as art history, students who hail from average or under-resourced schools may come to Harvard with little to no knowledge in those subject areas.

An international student from India, Varsha Varman ’18 had three options for her course of study in high school: science, math, and commerce, each with corresponding paths in medicine, engineering, or law or business school.

One of the more than 200 sophomores who declared a concentration in Economics last Thursday, Varman said she knew she would choose this field even before she left India and high school for Harvard. Studying English or Folklore and Mythology was never on the table.

“I partly feel that it’s because, I’m from India...where either math or science is considered acceptable and if you’re not doing either of those, economics is the only thing...which...would still be kind of acceptable,” Varman said. “Back home, you decided your life path at the age of 16.”

Professor James Simpson
Professor James Simpson, Chair of the English Department, sits in front of a full wall of books in his office in the Barker Center.

“Though things like art history sound interesting to me, I feel like because of my background...I don’t really feel an interest to exploring it,” she added. “I feel like that stems from the fact that it was something that is just not a part of my education.”

Maeve E. McMahon ’17 also had a sense of her collegiate path, and it contrasts starkly with one Varman envisioned. She attended the Groton School, a New England boarding school that she described as “very focused in the Classics” and where McMahon started studying Latin as an eighth grader. Her school also exposed her to ancient Greek.

Now a Classics concentrator at Harvard, McMahon feels grateful for the small size of her department and the intimate relationships she has fostered with professors, advantages that her peers in other, larger concentrations may not experience during their time here. Had she not been exposed to the Classics in high school, McMahon, who plays on the women’s varsity lacrosse team, said she most likely would have gravitated toward the concentrations her teammates chose because of the comfort level those peers would have provided. Their concentrations include Government, Psychology, and Economics.

“I think there’s a risk of not making it clear that you can come to Harvard not having heard of Classics before—not having looked at a Greek or Latin book—and start those classes here,” said Joshua D. Blecher-Cohen ’16, a joint Philosophy and Classics concentrator and a self-described humanist. “I think within Harvard there are certain reputations that get attached fairly or unfairly to particular concentrations.”

Blecher-Cohen attended a math and sciences high school and did not continue on the business and economics track when he arrived at the College. Blecher-Cohen—who studied Latin in middle school—said he thinks his concentrations may alienate interested students because of the assumptions that they need previous experience in those areas or that those fields will not lead directly to careers.

The Classics department offers entry-level courses, and Kathleen M. Coleman, a Classics professor and the department’s director of undergraduate studies, said the concentration draws some students who had “no opportunity whatsoever to do anything remotely approaching the study of antiquity” before Harvard. Still, they do not constitute as large a proportion of the department as Coleman said she would like.

Simpson, for his part, has noticed that as students have to confront previously untrodden academic ground, including close reading and writing increasingly lengthy papers, they shy away from those areas of study.

In some of his General Education courses, for example, Simpson has taught students who have decided to concentrate in the social sciences and hard sciences despite a desire to study the humanities. “Students...really love literature but...are a bit tentative about doing it, because they feel they haven’t had a sufficiently strong background,” he said.

"I think there's a risk of not making it clear that you can come to Harvard not having heard of Classics before—not having looked at a Greek or Latin book—and start those classes here," said Joshua D. Blecher-Cohen '16, a joint Philosophy and Classics concentrator.

Students without sufficient high school preparation, but with familial financial security, ultimately may make the leap of faith, according to Pinsker, who wrote the Atlantic piece earlier this year. Their peers from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, by in large, do not.

“Yes, it is troubling—and at this point sort of undeniable—that children with privileged upbringings are presented with a wider palette of options and, on top of that, encouraged to follow wherever their passions take them, probably to a larger extent than is the case with children who didn't,” Pinsker wrote in an email.

According to Weeden, research indicates that this is a trend. “Students from low [socioeconomic status] backgrounds could feel like they’re behind, in terms of being able to engage, especially in the humanities and a style of arguing that may be unfamiliar to them because of their prior experiences,” Weeden said.

CONCENTRATING ON THE FUTURE

Douglas T. Maggs ’17 never took a Latin class before coming to Harvard. Although his school offered the language, he chose to study French. As a sophomore with an opportunity to make another academic choice, he decided on Classics, even though his peers in the program had more experience in the field than he did.

A course on the Roman empire, taught by Classics and History professor Emma Dench, informed his course of study. Since then, Maggs said, he has not felt disadvantaged by the course material; he called his requisite beginning language classes well-structured, informative, and engaging.

“If you come into college without a classical background, you shouldn’t be deterred,” Maggs said. “That just speaks to the strength of the department.”

Maggs is, however, an exception, rather than the rule. “I’m definitely in the minority in this department,” Maggs said. “I know most all of the concentrators, and I can’t think of any of my friends who didn’t have exposure to Latin or Greek.”

Although departments like Classics open their doors to undergraduates from a variety of backgrounds, students like Maggs remain outliers.

Charged with looking into the broader issue of diversity at Harvard and the inclusion of students of various identities, a working group recently published a report whose findings confirm that all students do not take advantage of the College’s academic offerings. The group, chaired by Pusey Minister in Memorial Church Jonathan L. Walton, says that system needs to change.

Douglas Maggs
Douglas Maggs '17, who concentrates in Classics and History, listens to a translation in his Latin class on Wednesday morning.

Without faculty mentors to whom they can relate or adequate high school preparation, students shy away from departments they otherwise would have been interested in exploring, according to the report. “[E]xplicit and implicit messages of ‘you won’t do well’ lead to a disproportionate number of students opting out of certain concentrations,” the report says.

The College’s concentrations, the report proposes, should create clearer entry points and paths for students regardless of their backgrounds. Specifically, the report urges departments to create mentoring programs, share minority students’ success stories on their websites, and give students resources to attend events sponsored by organizations, such as the National Society of Black Physicists or the Society of Women Engineers, to provide networking opportunities among minority students.

“Harvard is committed to granting admission to high-achieving students who take advantage of all possibilities available to them, as opposed to students who simply attend the most elite high schools. This is correct and appropriate,” the report says.“Students can succeed from different curricular entry points, so it is incumbent on each department, as well as the University, to provide students with alternative narratives of success and multiple pathways to fulfilling all departmental requirements.”

Emelyn A. dela Peña, the College’s assistant dean of student life for equity, diversity, and inclusion who sat on the working group, said solutions like strong advising conversations may also remedy the situation.

“Good advising really should take into consideration what students backgrounds are and how we can create multiple pathways into concentrations for which students may not have been able to prepare for when they were in high school,” she said.

Dela Peña herself attended an under-resourced high school—one that offered neither pre-calculus nor calculus, let alone computer science—did not have access to a computer at home, and said she struggled in that college major, compared to peers from affluent backgrounds. She ultimately switched fields, receiving her undergraduate degree in ethnic studies instead of computer science.

“I absolutely believe that sometimes it’s challenging for folks who are underprepared to...endeavor in certain concentrations, but it doesn’t mean that there isn’t a path to do it, and we have to help students find that path,” dela Peña said.

—Staff writer Melissa C. Rodman can be reached at melissa.rodman@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @melissa_rodman.

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