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Harvard is Less Important Than You Think

Harvard in Numbers

By Aden Barton, Crimson Opinion Writer
Aden Barton ’24, an Editorial editor, is an Economics concentrator in Eliot House. His column “Harvard in Numbers” appears on alternate Mondays.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably very different from the average American student. Let me tell you just how unique you are. First, remember that most Americans don’t pursue post-secondary education: Two-thirds of adults in this country don’t have a college degree. Of those who do, the overwhelming majority do not attend a selective university: Less than one percent of current college students attend an Ivy League school.

Although we all implicitly recognize Harvard is different from most schools, this fundamental truth often gets lost in our discussions of higher education. This piece will flatter your ego by telling how unique you are, but also put you in your place by arguing our school matters less than you may think. If we want to increase educational opportunity, we need to focus less on Harvard.

People talk a lot about Harvard. And I mean a ton. For example, Google analytics show that mentions of Harvard far outstrip mentions of community colleges in books. Although it’s always nice to see Yale in second place, the level of attention on elite institutions is simply astounding.

This trend is also reflected at the New York Times, where coverage of Harvard doubles that of community colleges, according to analysis published by Vox media. Prominent media and political outlets are staffed by people who went to elite colleges – more than 40 percent of New York Times writers and editors did — so, it’s understandable that coverage skews towards these schools.

In focusing too much on elite schools, we both ignore some problems and overemphasize others.

Most colleges deal with different problems than Harvard. Take college dropouts. Completion rates are on the mind of most community colleges since the majority of their students don’t graduate in six years. You wouldn’t know this is a big deal by looking at Harvard which consistently has near 100 percent completion rates.

College admissions is an even better example. What should Harvard do about legacy admissions? Should admission officers consider SAT scores? These are fundamentally debates about how to allocate a surplus of applicants for a very small number of spots, but the more common problem in higher education is having too few applicants. Indeed, many smaller colleges face bankruptcy because enrollment rates are down.

Excessive focus on selective institutions distracts from more important policy questions. Just look at some of the recent headlines from New York Times opinion pieces about college: “More on the Firing of That N.Y.U. Professor” and "There’s Still One Big Trick for Getting Into an Elite College.” Neither elite college grade inflation nor Ivy League admission policies matter much for improving educational opportunity for the average American student.

And, remember that size matters. Community colleges enroll almost 1,000 times more students than Harvard College. As a result, community colleges and state schools like California State lift far more people out of poverty than selective institutions like Harvard, simply because they enroll so many more low income students.

Bottom line: the colleges that teach the most students and have the largest impact on educational opportunity are facing a very different set of problems than elite institutions. So, focusing on these selective schools produces policy discussions divorced from the average college.

Now, to be fair, people often say we should talk about Harvard precisely so that we can expand the opportunities here. Maybe it’s fine to focus on our school if you’re trying to democratize access. I think this approach is backwards. If you want to expand educational opportunities, the last place you should look is Harvard.

Before I say why, let me make clear that diversity at Harvard is important. For example, we should recruit and accept more low-income students (as I’ve argued here). But, we shouldn’t pretend that the stakes to these debates extend beyond our gates.

Efforts at campus inclusion face a fundamental mathematical limit. Just from a numbers perspective, it’s hard to argue that changing the composition of our incoming class will help anyone except those admitted. As Noah Smith points out, even if we doubled the size of the Ivy League, the effect on educational opportunity would be small.

Granted, there’s a representational benefit to having a more diverse campus. And maybe having a more diverse incoming class will lead to a more diverse society. But sometimes these discussions are akin to fighting over the ethnic make-up of Goldman Sachs’ C-Suite: a beneficial yet ultimately superficial gain.

Elite representation does nothing to help the most disadvantaged groups who never even enter elite spaces. As Marxist Philosopher Adolph Reed argues, focusing on diversity within high-income spaces (like Harvard) is a shallow form of egalitarianism because we should care more about distributing the wealth of the top 1 percent rather than making the 1 percent match the diversity of the 99 percent.

None of this abdicates Harvard’s responsibility to be more inclusive, but we must understand that other school systems — who face categorically different problems — have a bigger effect on higher education's inclusivity than any initiative at Harvard ever could.

Here are some policy questions I never see discussed in The Crimson or by student activists. What are the most effective tactics for decreasing dropout rates at community colleges? How can state-level spending be reorganized to guarantee higher levels of funding for local schools like Cal State? These are the sorts of questions that will have the most impact on access to higher education.

And, more relevant to us as students, what can Harvard do to partner with these institutions? There’s certainly greater space for interactions between selective and non-selective institutions. Joint-research initiatives could spread cutting edge research around the country, and student exchange programs could build greater connections between schools.

Let’s spend more time writing about, researching, and debating ideas like these that look outwards from Harvard.

If you care about expanding educational opportunity, then a focus on selective institutions makes very little sense. I understand the irony here. I’m writing a piece about Harvard saying we should talk less about Harvard. But we should all keep in mind the stakes surrounding discussions about our school – while not unimportant – are lower than we think.

Aden Barton ’24, an Editorial editor, is an Economics concentrator in Eliot House. His column “Harvard in Numbers” appears on alternate Mondays.

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