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Harvard Graduate Schools Are Right to Admit Fewer (with Some Caveats)

By Amanda Y. Su
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board.

The ongoing — and in many ways worsening — COVID-19 pandemic has forced universities across the United States to radically rethink their approach to graduate education. Harvard hasn’t proven an exception: The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences announced that it will lower the number of admits for the upcoming school year. Harvard’s Graduate School of Education is pausing Ph.D. admissions entirely.

The decision is an undeniable blow to prospective graduate students. Going to graduate school has historically served as a cocoon during times of recession. But this go around, admissions shuttering is rendering graduate education less accessible precisely when continuing your education might seem more attractive than braving the ailing job market.

And yet it might be the right call.

Admitting fewer graduate students will allow the University to support the students it already has. The pandemic has imposed financial, social distancing, and research restrictions that are straining the graduate experience and severely complicating Harvard’s ability to deliver on the experience graduate students were promised upon admission and need to develop as scholars. With some types of research halted, funding tightening, and in-person interactions with peers and professors all but impossible, Harvard’s resources are already stretched thin.

We have written extensively about the need to support graduate students. When the pandemic began, we called on the administration to be generous to our graduate peers, advocating for a universal temporary stay on student loan repayments and bridge-year funding. Before COVID-19, we supported the graduate student union’s decision to strike back when our University’s labor tensions seemed likely to become the dominant campus story of 2020 (they weren’t). A dip in admissions, while regrettable for students hoping to study here, could ensure that our current graduate student body enjoys precisely the kind of resources and attention that they have always deserved.

Further, the University’s decision to reduce admissions occurs within a broader context that precedes COVID-19: discontent with graduate education itself. The Faculty of Arts and Sciences letter announcing the admissions decision claims that the admissions reduction will allow the University to address “existing and fundamental concerns about Ph.D. curricula, the well-being of students, and their employment outcomes.”

That said, we’re not as convinced by another of the University’s justifications: an “ethical responsibility” not to exacerbate the forbidding academic job market by admitting new students. We have resisted the notion that an education serves the sole purpose of pumping students into particular careers; passing on and producing knowledge serves a larger societal goal. We thought Harvard shared this sentiment. And given the number of individuals who use their graduate degrees in work outside of academia, this justification doesn’t necessarily hold water anyway.

Speaking of implications for higher education: We are especially disappointed to see that humanities and social science departments seem to be overrepresented among the departments completely halting admissions at schools across the country. This trend only perpetuates the widespread devaluation of these disciplines in an increasingly technocratic societal and academic moment. While Harvard’s approach affords more departmental flexibility than that of many institutions, we are concerned that the admissions reductions could more permanently compound this trend.

Finally, if the desire to improve the quality of graduate education is the guiding principle — as it should be — admission cuts are not enough. We hope to see this renewed commitment reflect elsewhere, starting with policies that adequately address the lack of resources causing discontent among graduate students well before the current crisis began.

The University absolutely has an “ethical responsibility” to graduate students; last December, graduate students struck to demand its fulfillment. A year later, there is no better time to reflect on that duty.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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