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On the Fallacy of Free Harvard/Fair Harvard

Upon graduating from Harvard in 2014, I moved to New York City to embark on a year of exploring the education non-profit world. As the first in my family to go to college, I was eager to give back to the University; I soon found myself working with a local alumni group that connects with high schools in the outer boroughs of the city to expose less advantaged students to Harvard. I represented the university at college fairs full of students who reminded me of myself in many ways.

One Hispanic couple remains in my memory. The man was gray-haired and scruffy, and the woman wore a warm smile and curly head of Afro-Latina excellence. They approached the table as gingerly as mice. I tried to make them feel more comfortable by asking some low-risk questions; nevertheless, Dad did most of the talking—his English was better. He slowly revealed that they were here to do some research on behalf of their son, who couldn’t make the fair because he was at a debate competition. Eventually, he asked me the question that I knew they were thinking—the same question that I had asked myself thousands of times. “People like us—we’re from the South Bronx—do we really belong at a place like Harvard?” Their son was attending Regis, an exclusive prep school on the Upper East Side, on a scholarship and had a strong academic and extracurricular profile from what I could tell. “Absolutely; people like your son belong at Harvard,” I said, “because Harvard needs people like your son.”

That’s what conservative-activist Ron Unz and the slate of candidates seeking election to Harvard’s Board of Overseers fail to recognize. Unz's calls for "free tuition" ring hollow to those of us from less economically advantaged backgrounds who have gone to Harvard. The vast majority of Harvard College students graduate debt free—for example, only a quarter of the Class of 2012 required loans. Surely a "fair" system would be to ensure that those who need financial support get help, as opposed to funding those who can afford to pay.

Claims persist that this free tuition proposal will raise awareness of Harvard as an option for students who may not have considered the Ivy League before. But for the family I met in New York, as for so many others like them, it's not about being hindered by the price tag. Rather, it's about feeling as though one does not possess the pedigree and social capital required to even knock on the door of the Ivies—an externality of the exclusive legacy that Harvard and its peers spent centuries constructing.

These deep social schisms complicate the college admissions process, especially if it were altered to reflect Unz’s vision. A system based solely on numbers—on test scores and grades—makes it easier to forget these truths. In education, scores are often perceived as objective barometers of student ability, as a universally understood and cost-effective measurement. But research demonstrates that numbers don't denote truth with a capital T (or rather, "A" for ability). SAT scores, highly correlated with parental income, are more reflective of preparation than aptitude; GPA is more a measure of persistence and buy-in than IQ. None of this is to say that these criteria are deceptive to the point of warranted abolition. Instead, revering scores over other aspects of college applications makes the process no more meritocratic. If anything, it demonstrates a deep ignorance of the inequities that plague our K-12 system.

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I won’t harp on the many themes of exclusivity on Ivy League campuses. Many students from disadvantaged beginnings, including myself, have stories that illustrate the reality that elite colleges often feel like they were constructed for a very particular segment of the population. And that’s because they were.

But minds can change and institutions can grow over time. Harvard has demonstrated this through using holistic review in its college admissions process—a process that considers the whole person and serves as the key to unlocking a diverse educational experience. This is an extremely privileged phenomenon in college admissions reserved for institutions with the resources required to evaluate college applications in a more time intensive, but thoughtful, way. As an outsider of the admissions process who has spent a lot of time looking in, I would best describe holistic review as a way of contextualizing a college application—putting the numbers in the context of a story to gain a more complete understanding of a prospective student's potential.

Ultimately, the belief that any one alumnus or activist has the right and expertise to deem who deserves or does not deserve to be admitted to a private institution of higher learning does not fully appreciate the college admissions process. In short, it is wrong. Critics who demand access to admissions processes don’t understand that one of the central objectives of Harvard's admissions process, in addition to deciding who gets in, is crafting an entire class—the musicians, the future scientists and sociologists, the rowers, the international students. There’s no quota or magic number. It is the collective, crafted by an admissions process that considers every aspect of prospective students, that creates the transformative experience that I and so many other Harvard alumni muse over at college fairs and beyond.

As beneficiaries of this transformative experience, alumni should think twice before voting for candidates who would seek to undermine that process and compromise what makes Harvard special.


Daniel M. Lobo ‘14 is currently an Associate at Parthenon-EY and serves as Vice Chair of the First Generation Harvard Alumni. He is also the founder of the Harvard College First Generation Student Union.

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