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Whose Comp Is It, Anyway?

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

In a meeting of the Committee on Student Life last month, Dean of Students Katherine G. O’Dair said that the Dean of Students Office has tapped affiliates of the Harvard Graduate school of Education to produce a report on comp processes at the College.

In a year that has already physically separated students from the sites of their extracurricular activities — changing the nature of all and straining many — this institutional effort to evaluate comp processes is a worthy one. Some organizations have struggled in exile, and we hope the office’s review looks to care for communities that have languished in the new virtual norm. They’ll need rekindling when we return to Cambridge.

But only a few of the issues that plague comps materialized in March 2020. At their worst, comps can exacerbate some of the most toxic, regrettable aspects of Harvard’s culture.

Not all do, of course. Every comp is different. Some commendable organizations have painstakingly designed comps that are accessible and encouraging. Others, suffice it to say, have not. Taking stock of where comps stand on this spectrum and scrutinizing how we can improve them when we return to campus seems prudent. Some issues, however, seem obvious.

First, comps can be hyper-competitive by substantive metrics. Students who have competed with brilliant peers from around the world for a spot at Harvard arrive in Cambridge only to find that the doors that open for them in the next four years are largely a function of applications. They’re dropped into a world of organizations they must naively navigate, hoping to gain entry somewhere “good.” To us, this seems like the wrong message to send 1600 bright-eyed freshmen about the kind of community Harvard can offer them.

Second, these hyper-competitive comps end as planned: a few students get into their clubs of choice, while most don’t. Exclusivity is competition’s younger but close-following twin. Who ends up on the winning side of exclusivity is substantially related to who knew how to work the system upon arrival. Students with family connections to the College (take legacies) enter with a leg up on their peers when it comes to navigating and courting the who’s-who of the extracurricular scene. Students from low-income backgrounds and students of color disproportionately enter the college without those connects. This disparity in knowledge of Harvard’s inner, unspoken workings is among the most significant practical inequities that continues to divide students by class once they arrive in Harvard Yard. Exclusive comps, particularly social comps that make no substantive evaluation beyond personal compatibility, perpetuate this cycle of inequality.

Finally, exclusive comps can be academically limiting. If you’re rejected due to lack of skill from an organization that’s dedicated to the practice of an area you’re unfamiliar with, but are interested in learning about, how can you acquire those skills?

Perhaps some comps exist this way because it is beneficial to the organizations to maintain them as such. Not only do groups that thrive on a reputation for exclusivity get to claim social clout as a perk to prospective members — some use their abundant resources to lavish their small number of members with, frankly, unreal perks. On its website, the perennially exclusive Harvard College Consulting Groups boasts that it took members to see Kelly Clarkson and Logic live in concert and hosted a party in a castle. Is this what the “non-profit” is accepting so few applicants for?

There is another way. Educational comps don’t cut students, choosing instead to teach skills that equip them with the tools they need to be effective members of their organizations. These can be lengthy, and may be no less difficult than exclusive comps, but they send the right kind of message to new students about their place in our community: You may have to work hard and learn fast, but with demonstrated commitment, there’s no extracurricular that will refuse you. To be sure, not everybody who comps a completion-comp organization will choose to stick around or win the trust of their peers to rise up through the ranks upon arrival, but such comps at baseline emphasize that everyone is welcome, and that everyone will be given a chance to learn and apply themselves. Such processes — at their best — serve not the organizations that run them, but the generations of students who learn from them and the world that hopefully benefits from the things they learned.

In the end, isn’t that who the comp is for?

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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