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How Harvard Can Desegregate High Schools

By Oliver S. York
Oliver S. York ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, is an Economics concentrator in Lowell House.

Nov. 1, the restrictive early action deadline, marked the beginning of the Harvard College Admissions’s annual five-month sprint to assemble an incoming class that reflects the widest possible spectrum of race, gender, geographic origin, socioeconomic status, and academic and co-curricular interests.

Harvard’s admissions practices are designed to help the selection committee build a diverse College class. But before the admissions committee gets lost in this year’s search, they should take some time to think about how their work can be transformed into a powerful tool to create diverse high school classes, too.

High schools in affluent areas are acutely aware of the way they are viewed by selective colleges. When my San Francisco high school abolished Advanced Placement testing in a laudable effort to increase academic exploration and empower the faculty to focus on their specific strengths, it only did so after many assurances from college admissions departments that students wouldn’t be penalized. As at many schools that made similar decisions, parents were scared that their kids wouldn’t gain admission to selective universities. So we know that, at least in well-off communities, colleges hold a lot of potential sway in the way secondary education is structured. It’s time for Harvard to claim this power.

Although there’s some debate about which metric is best for measuring school segregation, it’s clear that the American school system is more segregated than it has been in decades. What if Harvard stated a preference for students from racially diverse high schools — would that compel affluent school systems to beef up their diversity initiatives and broadly encourage the reintegration of American K-12 education? It’s a powerful idea, and one worth exploring.

No, this wouldn’t be a silver bullet to fix high school stratification. It might work best in urban school systems like San Francisco’s, where racial segregation exists in a dense enough geographical area that remedies are possible. This was my experience — my high school seemed to use geography as a proxy for race, admitting students from scores of middle schools across San Francisco, a city whose racial diversity is organized by neighborhood.

But other barriers remain: Most schools won’t have the financial resources to expand access to other students, and plenty of selective schools simply won’t care. However, at least in some school systems, Harvard might have the power to declare its values and use its college admissions policy to make a difference.

Why stop at race? Harvard should declare a preference for students from socioeconomically diverse high schools as well. We live in an era of great socioeconomic stratification, and it should be news to nobody that this affects schools and educational outcomes deeply. If the admissions office announced that, starting in about five years, they were going to give an active boost to applicants with the worldview and interpersonal experience garnered by learning in a diverse environment, I predict that private, parochial, and insular public schools across the country would scramble to open themselves up to poorer students who are currently denied access to such educational spaces.

Like all other factors in Harvard’s admission process, the diversity of applicants’ high school environments should be considered in a holistic manner that takes access into account. It would be unfair to penalize students from under-resourced schools for failing to come from a diverse student body, and it would be similarly difficult to justify penalizing a student from Sausalito, Calif. (93 percent white, just across the Golden Gate Bridge) for not coming from a school as racially diverse as a student from San Francisco (47 percent white). Instead of putting the burden on applicants directly, I imagine this policy playing out more indirectly in the form of competition between rival school administrators to ensure that their school is on par with the region’s diversity leaders. Concerned parents and students, with the privilege to do so, would vote with their feet to choose more diverse academic settings.

To be sure, this approach could become a slippery slope. Harvard could theoretically use its admissions leverage in support of any number of issues: After race and income, why not select for schools with rich opportunities for public service, or schools that offer programming in sexual harassment prevention? Heck — what if Harvard stated a preference for schools that required students to read the newspaper?

Maybe The Crimson’s readers would support the last, somewhat frivolous, suggestion, but we need to set a limit somewhere. Should Harvard put its gravitas on the line in order to take a (likely ineffectual) stand on more controversial issues like endorsing secular education or supporting a progressive dress code? Probably not. Luckily, emphasizing racial and economic diversity is more than an arbitrary stand — Harvard can make the clear case that students from desegregated schools will more comfortably contribute to the diverse college class.

Harvard already has a lot of tools at its disposal for influencing the way secondary education is carried out, from training teachers to developing curricula. As this year’s admissions process kicks off, it’s time for Harvard to recognize that it has one more tool at its disposal.

Oliver S. York ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, is an Economics concentrator in Lowell House.

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