Opening the Concentrations

Academic experiences must be accessible to all

Harvard has spent months focusing on inclusivity outside the classroom. Now, it's time to begin examining how the issue manifests itself inside the classroom as well. A recent Crimson report highlighted a central concern in this area: Despite Harvard’s vast array of concentrations—49 in total—many students do not feel free to choose between them. In order for the University to best fulfill its mission of providing a liberal arts education to everyone it admits, Harvard must open its concentrations to its increasingly diverse student body.

A report recently released by the College’s Working Group on Diversity and Inclusion included a recommendation that Harvard’s academic departments, particularly in the STEM fields, create clearer pathways for students whose high schools provided fewer academic opportunities like Advanced Placement courses. Not fully addressed, however, is the converse issue: the desire of students from less affluent backgrounds to choose career-oriented concentrations, often at the expense of the arts and humanities.

At Harvard, a plurality of students consistently declare concentrations in economics in the hopes of pursuing careers in finance or consulting. This trend has national analogues. According to data examined in an article by Joe Pinkser in The Atlantic, wealthier students are more likely to pursue degrees in the liberal arts because they feel less constrained by post-graduation career prospects. Less wealthy students often choose to concentrate in social science and STEM subjects with clearer prerequisites and obvious applications to future jobs.

While it would be impractical to argue that students should not consider their employment prospects while choosing a concentration, every academic opportunity at the College should be available to every student regardless of prior experiences with the field. At the same time, Harvard must also maintain its rigorous academic focus. This conflict is the crux of the problem: Introductory classes must be both demanding and welcoming to people of all backgrounds. While certainly flawed in other ways, Computer Science 50 has excelled in this regard by advertising the fact that nearly 80 percent of its incoming students have no previous coding experience. Such advertising has allowed a notoriously difficult computer science class to become the most popular class at Harvard and Yale this semester.

Issues of inclusivity are particularly prevalent in fields like classics, which may appear to have daunting prerequisites and little applicability in the workplace. According to The Crimson's news story, several classics concentrators interviewed by The Crimson cited their study of the field in high school as the motivating factor for choosing it as their concentration. To the Classics Department’s credit, Director of Undergraduate Studies Kathleen M. Coleman told The Crimson that she hopes more students without previous exposure will consider concentrating in classics. Departments suffering from such homogeneity—frequently in the liberal arts, as described by Pinkser—should follow CS50’s lead in attracting a diverse group of students while still maintaining the academic rigor required of a Harvard education.


Practically, this goal means that academic departments must provide adequate information to all potential concentrations about what it really means to concentrate in that field. Dispelling the myth that English concentrators are doomed for unemployment is just as important as framing economics as a concentration that does not necessitate a career in finance. Every concentration offered at Harvard has unique benefits and drawbacks. The University would be well served to ensure that individual academic departments do their part in making every concentration open to every student.


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