Buying Your Way into Harvard

When I applied to join the Class of 2021, I felt as if my application was a crapshoot. In high school, I had slaved away studying for standardized tests, spread myself thin with extracurriculars, and tested my limits with a rigorous course load — all for a sliver of a chance to be considered by a faceless committee that would determine the fate of my next four years. It turns out, however, that there’s a much more foolproof method of applying to Harvard College. Apparently, I’ve been doing it all wrong. All I had to do was be wealthy enough to buy a building.

The SFFA lawsuit has unearthed yet another controversial finding about Harvard’s mysterious admissions process, namely that Harvard assigns preference to applicants whose families gifted large donations or possess extensive connections with powerful figures within the administration. These carefully curated applicants, found on the “Dean’s Interest List,” evidently “benefit from a significantly higher acceptance rate.”

As a low-income Asian American student at Harvard, the lawsuit has forced me to critically question my identity and my place on campus. It’s a hard pill to swallow that I attend an institution currently on trial for having bias against people like me in every sense. The revelation of the Dean’s Interest List only exacerbates my pain because it speaks volumes as to what type of student Harvard prioritizes. It’s someone rich, someone white, someone not me.

The fault does not only fall on the College, however. On a broader scope, Harvard is merely a microcosm of the forces governing the outside world, a peek through the curtain of what inequities we should expect to encounter in the workforce and beyond. Harvard’s preference for applicants belonging to donor families is not an egregious revelation. If anything, it affirms the tit-for-tat dynamics that have sewn the foundation of our society and workforce. Harvard, being a pipeline directly into the corporate world, has actively contributed in maintaining this reality, enabling this cyclical nepotism of millionaires paving the path for other millionaires.


According to a survey conducted by The Crimson, of the Class of 2022, only 14.4 percent come from families with incomes below $40,000 while more than half hail from families making more than $125,000. I didn’t have to research these figures to know this to be true. I knew this by the high-end brands walking past my nameless sweater on the way to class. I knew by the clubs my friends invited me to join — only to see them shrug at the $600 fee, as if an afterthought. I knew by the cold that bites into my bones through the winter coat that is never warm enough but was the only one within my budget.

The special favor that Harvard surreptitiously gives to children of donors only contributes to the socioeconomic disparity intimately felt within Harvard. When Harvard gives certain wealthier applicants a boost in the admissions process, it further alienates low-income and underprivileged students from their peers and contradicts the message of inclusion that we all repeatedly hear in our first year. Yes, Harvard’s financial aid package is outstandingly generous, but sometimes, handing students a wad of money isn’t enough when there is still an enormous wealth gap felt among students — one that Harvard actively sustains.

It is no wonder then that students here, especially those from underprivileged backgrounds, suffer from an epidemic of imposter syndrome and anxiety about their place on campus. I myself have always felt like I’ve had to prove my existence here, and it can be exhausting when half your emotional energy is invested in the need to overachieve to justify that you belong here, even without a six-figure family income. The preference within Harvard’s admissions process is staunch evidence that I will have to work ten times harder just to have a chance at what others were granted at birth. Although sobering, Harvard has shown me that even with hard work and dedication, the world still prioritizes how much is in your wallet.

In light of the lawsuit, I don’t believe that affirmative action is the problem here. While we cannot ignore the rampant inequality pervading the admissions process, we should not attempt to dismantle the only existing system attempting to equalize the power of buying your way into Harvard.

I am a low-income, Asian-American student. Quite honestly, I am glad that this lawsuit has unearthed significant findings and opened a necessary dialogue about our place on campus. However, I am frustrated with the direction of the lawsuit and demand that we not be used as a means to propel an initiative that will only contribute to the problem. Harvard needs to wake up and implement systematic action behind its words and gestures of generosity, and until it does, I will not feel welcome on this campus.

Linda Lee ’21, a Crimson Blog editor and Crimson Editorial comper, lives in Eliot House.