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Harvard’s Big Math Problem: COVID-19 Gap Semesters

By Oliver S. York
Oliver S. York ’21, an Editorial comper, is an Economics concentrator who represents Lowell House on the Undergraduate Council.

It’s the question on everybody’s mind, whispered in Zoom sessions, texted surreptitiously to half the members of a group chat, relegated finally to the Harvard Confessions Facebook page: “Are you willing to do another semester of online classes?” And the results of the recent Undergraduate Council survey offer some jaw-dropping numbers — over 45 percent of undergraduates are “very likely” or “already planning” to ask for a leave of absence if the fall semester will be online.

All eyes now turn apprehensively to see the reaction from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences planning team, led by Dean of Science Christopher W. Stubbs and Registrar Michael P. Burke. Rumors are already swirling that administrators will try to stem the exodus by drastically limiting access to leaves of absence. I don’t want to assume the committee’s decisions, but it’s important to be clear on one point:

Restricting leaves would be a huge and unnecessary mistake. Here’s why.

First, even a simple quantitative model makes it evident that the problem isn’t as big as it seems. My initial intuition was wrong and, if you’re panicking, yours is probably wrong too. If 50 percent of the student body takes a leave of absence, that does not mean 50 percent overcrowding when they come back. Overcrowding is a result of students sticking around longer than they otherwise would — if half the student body takes a semester off, Harvard is looking at a shortfall of 800 beds every fall for the next three years, as half of the just-graduated class stays for an extra semester. Instead of a 50 percent problem, we’re looking at a 12.5 percent shortfall.

Not only would restrictions create bad blood by signaling (I believe incorrectly) that FAS cares more about its bottom line than about the students that vivify its community, such restrictions would be unnecessary. Yes, there’s a resources crunch on its way — when students return from leave, the College can expect overcrowded houses, classrooms, dining halls, health, and mental health clinics — but proactive steps can manage the burden without the need to reduce students’ choice. I made some quick models to help me think about the problem, and I want to offer one set of solutions.

For these sample calculations, I assume that each class is 1600 students, and I imagine the worst-case scenario in which 50 percent of current students elect for a one-semester leave — 800 per class. As a side note, later returns of the UC survey showed lower interest in leaves, so the actual rate is probably under 45 percent. Also notice that the assumption of one-semester leaves puts the burden entirely on the fall, with no extra students in spring semesters.

To start, the College needs to smooth out leaves of absence so the burden doesn’t land entirely on fall semesters. Much of this will happen naturally. I would set a target of having 200 additional people from each grade take a fall gap semester before graduation. This will allow many students to graduate on-cycle and participate in normal hiring and graduate school application cycles. If distributed evenly, it will also smooth the resource crunch to a 600-bed shortfall in the fall and a 200-bed shortfall in the spring for each of the next three years.

Next, the College should loosen its future obligations. It sucks to say that incoming classes have to be smaller, but that’s the easiest way to relieve strain. If we have a one-time 200-person reduction in the size of the Class of 2025, we then reduce the bed shortfall from 600 in the fall and 200 in the spring to 400 in fall and zero in the spring for the three problem years.

With a crunch of 400 students remaining each fall, it’s time to get creative. I offer the following proposals to get the conversation started:

First, let some students pull the plug early and graduate after seven semesters. This will help accommodate those who need to enter the job market or apply to graduate schools at a particular time in the year, but who would otherwise be off-cycle. If "credits" are an issue, the College should move to expand advanced standing, recognize more high school classes, and be more lenient about the (already deeply dysfunctional) general education requirements (don't get me started on how my three departmental courses about science in society apparently aren't enough to fulfill the “science in society” requirement).

Second, give students the opportunity to spend a fall semester “abroad” as part of non-competitive cohorts at Harvard graduate schools like the Kennedy School and the Graduate School of Education — almost like studying abroad, but still in Cambridge. Open to juniors and seniors, this program would give experience and a resume boost to students who are considering related career paths, without too much distance from their current academic support networks. Students would be responsible for their own housing, but they'd be close enough to remain affiliated with their undergraduate house. To make this even more appealing, Harvard could cap tuition at the College rate and pledge to transfer financial aid.

Finally, open competitive slots for seniors to leave Harvard College a semester early to join professional schools, like Harvard Medical School, Harvard Law School, and Harvard Business School. For students who are off-cycle, their skipped eighth semester would otherwise be in the fall, so they would join professional programs on the normal schedule. Again, tuition (for that one semester, at least) is capped, with financial aid transferring over. By keeping admission competitive, this program would be a way for Harvard to demonstrate that it has students’ best interests in mind, while also maintaining the value of professional school degrees and reducing the College resource burden.

Rather than making any quick policy announcements about leaves of absence, the FAS planning committee should commit to making decisions based on detailed quantitative models. Crises are a test of compassion. Instead of opening Pandora’s box by ignoring students’ reasonable and deeply-held preferences for leaves of absence, Harvard should seize this golden opportunity to ease the resource crunch while also demonstrating its commitment to students’ personal, academic, and career goals.

Oliver S. York ’21, an Editorial comper, is an Economics concentrator who represents Lowell House on the Undergraduate Council.

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