​Flipping the Script on College Acceptance

David Cox is, in a word, unexpected. As an Assistant Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology and of Computer Science, his research walks a tight-rope on the blurred line between human cognition and computer computation. To see a man under 40 at the helm of such a lab, much less one with the build of a CrossFit Addict, is unexpected. But what is further unexpected is the structure of his most popular course—Molecular and Cellular Biology 81, Harvard’s intensive introduction to neuroscience. The course is taught in a “flipped” classroom style: Lectures are to be watched at home through a Massive Online Open Course Cox designed himself, and classroom time is for thorough, productive discussion. For this reason, enrollment is capped and competitive.

Sitting in a room of over 100 students vying for less than 30 seats, I remember vividly his assurance to us—that our background in biology did not matter, and that enrollment was not targeted towards students who had the most knowledge going in. I released a deep, thankful exhale. The last time I had taken biology was four years ago. And, as with most everything at Harvard, the familiar faces I saw in the classroom suggested that I was probably in the bottom half as far as qualifications were concerned.

After he dismissed this first sitting, I went up to ask him if I was, in fact, aiming for the correct course. His response echoed a sentiment that would have saved me a lot of anxiety as a high school senior: “We’re really just looking to take an academically diverse cohort, as that makes the most interesting discussion. You know, the more perspectives we can get coming in, the better off each student is coming out.”

As I’ve observed recent occurrences related to college admissions—the ongoing Students for Fair Admissions lawsuit against Harvard, the infamous University of Texas Bake Sale, the several messages I’ve recently received from friends back home irate over being denied a seat in their first choice schools—I am reminded of this conversation.

The reason affirmative action and race-conscious admissions as a whole have survived the test of time (and several Supreme Court cases) is because universities have a compelling interest in the benefits they provide to their student bodies. Yet, for many, affirmative action is still labeled as “unfair”.

This is likely because, for many Americans, college admissions appear to be a process of validation. Those who are “best” should be taken and made better. On its face, this makes some sense. This argument favors the concept of perceived meritocracy, especially if one believes (despite significant well-published experimental and statistical evidence to the contrary) that in America today racism, socio-economic status, and other factors do not create discrepancies in opportunity. However, even if we somehow pretend these do not exist, validation still is not how we should think of college admissions.

College admissions should be understood in the same way Professor Cox structures his course: outcome-first. What is important to colleges is, and has always been, producing the best class of graduates from a given pool of applicants. Modern college admissions processes reflect this.

As such, support for holistic, diversity-conscious college admissions is not just socially and morally right for applicants; it is a proven necessity for graduates. It is irrefutable that exposure to different backgrounds produces varying, fresh perspectives. Additionally, racial diversity has been shown to play upon ways we instinctively and unknowingly discriminate in order to create better results. Being confronted by people who don’t look like us encourages us to consider our thoughts and arguments more thoroughly. Thus campuses that are assuredly diverse, in every sense, produce better graduates—not just because students engaged in novel conversations, or because they empathetically broadened their perspectives, but because they worked harder to explain themselves, and they thought critically about their assumptions.

For some, this view of college admissions can be frustrating. After years of working their hardest to get into their dream school, some applicants are edged out by people they believe are less qualified than them. This seems unfortunate, but in the end, these applicants benefit too. Colleges exist to produce members of our society who will further us in science, commerce, the arts, and many other domains, and so it is the output, and not the input, that counts. It isn’t just that we all end up better when colleges look to the future, either—the students who were edged out at one school will have learned and grown more because they were members of a vibrant community at a different school that cared deeply about the cohort into which the student entered.

For those in the application process now, remember: It is understandably easy to confuse something that is competitive with it being selectively validating. When the stakes are high, it is easy to confuse “accepted” with “worthy”. Yet, college admissions officers cannot validate your existence or your accomplishments. None claim to do so, either. Thankfully, this also means they cannot invalidate these things. Admissions officers are there to build communities, not to sanctify individuals. You are so much more than what you’ve placed on your applications, anyways. There is a place for you out there, and take pride in the fact that your presence there will be valuable in creating a community of diverse voices.

Harrison Satcher 19, a psychology concentrator, lives in Eliot House.


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