Two days after the Supreme Court’s June decision in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard rolled back race-based affirmative action, Lawrence H. Summers, a former Harvard president, took to the pages of the Washington Post with a seemingly unorthodox idea.
He hit on all of the key talking points first, of course: Colleges ought to abolish legacy preferences, reconsider athletic recruitment for what he called “aristocratic sports,” and seek more applicants who had experienced adversity and family disadvantage.
But then he added, “selective private colleges and universities enroll a tiny fraction of 18-year-olds each year. Changes in their admissions policies will in turn affect only a small fraction of their classes. So for all the attention they attract, the admissions policies of these institutions have a marginal impact on social justice.”
“If elite institutions are serious about social justice, they have to think about scale,” Summers wrote. “What except exclusivity is the rationale for not significantly expanding freshman classes as applicant pools explode?”
Summers’ commentary this summer did not come out of nowhere. During his presidency, in since-abandoned plans, he proposed building undergraduate housing in Allston in the early 2000s. And though Harvard’s enrollment has largely stagnated in recent years, most of its peers — Columbia, Princeton, Brown, and Yale, for some — have all seen their undergraduate ranks grow, either gradually or through concerted efforts to expand housing, and, by extension, access.
Higher education, in any form, can be a ticket to prosperity; consider the more than $20,000 difference in median income between 22 to 27-year-olds with and without college degrees, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Attending a highly prestigious school in particular, according to economists at Opportunity Insights, increases students’ chances of earning in the top 1 percent of Americans by 60 percent.
However, a Harvard education, like all of its elite peers, is a scarce commodity — a luxury good, one might say — that’s closed off to all but the roughly 2,000 high school students that secure a spot at Harvard College each year. Since the Supreme Court’s first major ruling upholding the legality of affirmative action in 1978, the number of applicants to Harvard has skyrocketed by nearly 450 percent. Meanwhile, the size of the College has remained largely the same, resulting in today’s acceptance rate of around 3.5 percent.
The discussion about who is advantaged or disadvantaged by the admissions process — be it Black students, white students, or legacy students — seems to take this regime of selectivity for granted, as though elite admissions had to remain a zero-sum game.
But what if it didn’t have to? What if Harvard could think bigger?
As debates rage on about the details of who gets the few existing spots, scholars and former university administrators — some with ideas more far-reaching than others — weigh in about their attempts to broaden the conversation and advocate for schools like Harvard to further open their doors to the world.
Though their visions for expansion range from incremental to exponential, they share a common principle of boosting educational access. They argue that Harvard shouldn’t be constrained by the chains of exclusivity. If our educational experience is truly “transformative,” a description told and retold to successive classes of Harvard freshmen, why not try to transform the lives of as many as possible? Why reserve it for a select few?
Or is that exclusivity the point? Would an accessible Harvard truly be, well, Harvard?
Imagine this: A Harvard undergraduate wakes up in a newly built House in Allston. They hop on a monorail that gets them to their classes on the Cambridge campus in a few minutes. Later in the day, instead of riding the bus for 40 minutes to get to the School of Public Health in Longwood for that class they cross-registered in, they simply walk down the street.
This was the vision that the Summers administration had for Allston’s development in the early 2000s: a campus containing multiple graduate schools and new dorms to house hundreds of undergraduates.
In 1989, the Beal Companies, a Boston-based development company, began acquiring swaths of land in Allston that eventually totaled over 50 acres. Eight years later, in 1997, it was revealed that the Beal Companies had acquired the land on behalf of Harvard — which has since grown its landholdings in Allston to over 350 acres, roughly a third of the neighborhood.
Harvard’s expansion into Allston has long been a source of skepticism for residents, who question its impact on already-rising housing and living costs. Any further expansion of the University’s presence in the area — such as undergraduates living in new Allston Houses — could exacerbate these concerns.
The Summers administration in the early 2000s foresaw extravagant futures for the University’s landholdings in Allston. Former FAS Dean William C. Kirby, in his book, “Empires of Ideas,” recalls a barrage of “prospective plans” for what he called “the Allston Promised Land.”
The proposals even suggested literally unifying Cambridge and Allston by “moving the Charles River” to bring Harvard’s landmass “together like a modern Pangaea.” These were ambitious visions.
From the start of his presidency in 2001, Summers was captivated by how Allston could change Harvard. Standing on the steps of Memorial Church at his presidential installation ceremony, he spoke of a “historic opportunity to create a new Harvard campus for centuries to come.”
Two years later, in October 2003, Summers followed up in a nearly 6,000-word letter to Harvard affiliates detailing his thoughts on the University’s next moves across the river, suggesting that the new campus house the Graduate School of Education and School of Public Health.
However, the part of the plan that Summers, at a faculty meeting prior to the letter’s release, called “perhaps more speculative but possibly of the greatest importance in the long run,” was the possibility of constructing new undergraduate houses in Allston.
He saw the creation of undergraduate housing in Allston as possibly serving three functions: integrating the two campuses, moving students from the Radcliffe Quad closer to the existing River Houses, and enabling Harvard to expand its international student population.
In addition to building enough dorms and facilities, Summers had also proposed enlarging the faculty — which would support the new students.
His vision, he wrote, was “neither immutable nor merely conjectural,” indicating that though it was not set in stone, it was — at the very least — suggestive of the direction Harvard would go.
And he had backers. In May 2004, an undergraduate life task force helmed by Kirby seconded Summers’ plan to create houses in Allston, proposing that Harvard build between three and eight houses on the other side of the river.
But these plans fell to the wayside as the Summers presidency ended in 2006 amid accusations of sexism and fierce faculty backlash to his reportedly adversarial leadership style.
The 2008 financial crisis meant that pursuing capital-intensive projects like expansion looked much less appealing. And when Harvard filed an Institutional Master Plan for its Allston campus in 2013, undergrad housing was no longer on the docket.
Jonathan Swain, a Harvard spokesperson, did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
“No growth from the mid 70s onward for an institution as successful as Harvard made little sense to me,” Summers writes in a statement. In fact, one former colleague says Summers believed that if an institution wasn’t growing in size, it was declining. “Of course,” Summers adds, “student body growth would have had to be gradual and matched by growth in faculty facilities and programs to preserve the unique and special quality of Harvard experience.”
Around when Summers assumed Harvard’s presidency in 2001, the University was in a relatively similar place to its New Haven rival, also weighing a plan to expand its enrollment and footprint.
But while Harvard scrapped its potential expansion plans, Yale followed through. The school renovated all 12 of its existing colleges, Yale’s equivalent to the Houses, over the span of just 13 years and opened two brand-new ones by 2017. With the new Pauli Murray and Benjamin Franklin Colleges, Yale began to admit an additional 200 students per year — a 15 percent increase.
But it wasn’t always a given.
When Richard C. Levin assumed the presidency of Yale in 1993, the school was in dire straits. A chief problem was the physical condition of campus: Students complained to the Yale Daily News of “cramped living spaces, rooms in disrepair, and busted plumbing.” One late 90s incident saw a “cascade of ceiling plaster” fall near students’ heads in one of the college’s dining halls.
Just as pressing were Yale’s financial woes. A few years earlier, in the face of a looming budget deficit, Levin’s predecessor, Benno C. Schmidt Jr., had proposed a bitter pill: a reduction of Yale’s faculty by more than 10 percent.
It would have been a stunning reduction in the size and scope of one of America’s top educational institutions. Faculty, predictably, resented the proposal. And Schmidt, amid an internal firestorm, unexpectedly announced his departure from the school — a move the Yale Daily News described as “abandoning ship.”
When Levin stepped in a year later, an albatross of austerity seemed to weigh down every part of the school. The $100 million Schmidt had set aside to renovate the colleges had been revised down to about $65 million, and Levin would likely have to make additional cuts or raise more money.
But the first priority, everyone agreed, was renovating the existing 12 residential colleges. To this end, Yale set an ambitious goal: roughly one college every 15 months, with the entire process taking place between 1998 and 2011 (for comparison, Harvard’s house renewal project, which officially began in 2011, is only halfway done).
“It was only partway through that process, around the year 2000, that we started to think seriously about expansion,” Levin says, adding that a capital campaign gave Yale the funds for expansion.
Levin describes the initial expansion plans as a natural response to trends within the university. “Everything at Yale had grown since the last time we added undergraduate students,” he recalls. “The graduate schools had gotten larger, in terms of the number of students. The faculty had gotten larger. The staff was larger. The endowment was larger.”
According to Levin, certain members of the Yale Corporation — which functions as the university’s board of trustees — pushed for and united behind expansion in a way that Harvard’s top administrative officials did not under Summers.
In 2008, Yale’s plan was officially moving forward. Though the Great Recession forced Yale — like Harvard with its Allston planning — to put the project “on the shelf for a couple of years,” Levin says, the two colleges eventually opened in the 2017-18 academic year.
“It was really animated by a spirit of ‘Expansion is good for the world,’” Levin says, adding that he and other administrators felt they could give more people “that kind of opportunity to come to this extraordinary place.”
“We always knew we could double the size of the entry class and not give up any quality,” says John E. Pepper Jr., a former senior fellow on the Yale Corporation who oversaw the college’s renovations, speaking with a gentleness unexpected of a Fortune 500 chief executive. “That final choice — this thousand students, the number that was admitted — versus the pool, was in a way arbitrary.”
Though the elite cadre of universities had been largely hesitant to expand since the 1970s, recently some have followed in Yale’s footsteps. In 2016, top administrators at Princeton, then with an undergraduate enrollment of 5,400, set a goal of adding another 500 undergraduate students to its campus. The school debuted two new residential colleges this spring, with a third under construction.
Over on the West Coast, in 2016, Stanford administrators expressed a desire to local officials in Santa Clara County to build facilities allowing the school to admit 100 additional students per year until 2035 (after substantial local opposition, they withdrew the proposal). Just two years ago, ex-Stanford President Marc T. Tessier-Lavigne said he hoped to see the undergraduate population expand by 25 percent.
According to data from Columbia math professor Michael Thaddeus ’88, between 2002 and 2019, Cornell’s enrollment grew by 10 percent, Brown’s by almost 20 percent, and Columbia’s by 30 percent. “To grow at the right kind of pace is desirable,” Columbia’s former president Lee C. Bollinger said in 2014, “and that is what Columbia has been doing.”
These schools’ growth suggests a trend of top administrators at elite universities beginning to expand access, even if in modest drips.
In Hanover, New Hampshire, Dartmouth administrators strongly considered the idea as recently as 2018. Dartmouth’s then-president, Philip J. Hanlon, published a report in 2018 that explored the challenges of expanding enrollment but ultimately came to the conclusion that the school needed to address existing concerns with housing and faculty expansion first.
In the case of Dartmouth, Hanlon says, “beds were a gating function.” In fact, he explains, the school “not only would need more beds to expand enrollment but we need beds to renovate our aging dorms right now — so swing space.” But, he says, he still believes that if a university has the means to expand, they should.
“What happens is, you have this experience — this powerful, transformative experience — you go out into the world and you do good things,” Hanlon says. “So, the more students that we can send into the world, the more that our institutions are going to impact the world for the better. And to me, that’s the case for undergraduate expansion.”
In fact, according to Thaddeus’ data, the only Ivy League school to see no expansion in that time period was Harvard. (While the Class of 2025 was abnormally large, Harvard’s enrollment has since returned to pre-pandemic levels).
On the whole though, Harvard has not been alone in its resistance to expansion. It’s easy to see why: The obstacles to growth are immense, with demands for new facilities, new faculty, and most of all, money.
At Yale, according to Pepper, Yale trustees recognized that Levin would need to raise an appreciable sum in order to expand “in a quality way.”
Facing an immense financial hole, Levin spearheaded a capital campaign between 2006 and 2011 that raised nearly $4 billion for the school, including securing an individual $250 million donation for the new colleges in the final year of his presidency. All in all, he says, he had to raise about half a billion dollars to facilitate the expansion.
This money is particularly important because Yale, like Harvard, spends more money educating undergraduates than it collects through tuition, Levin explains. “One might have thought,” he writes in an email, “that the incremental revenue from new students would cover the cost of educating them. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.”
Expanding class size thus requires constant additional investment by Yale. “It’s one thing to spend the money to build the building, but the other is, how much is it going to cost to increase faculty to be able to support the students? What about the maintenance of the building?” Pepper, the former Yale trustee, says. “We just wondered if we had the money and the resources to sustain it.”
But Thaddeus emphasizes that, even if money is available, expansion should be well-planned and done in a responsible fashion.
Columbia’s undergraduate expansion, Thaddeus says, hasn’t always been good for the school. The dining halls became “severely overcrowded,” he says, giving an example of the problems that result from increasing enrollment without expanding facilities.
Known for uncovering Columbia’s misreporting of data to U.S. News & World Report, Thaddeus speaks about Columbia’s administration skeptically. On the front door of his office is a graph of Columbia’s employee counts over time — with the administrator category skyrocketing since 2003, while other employee categories counts stayed mostly stable.
“The people like Larry Summers or our deans here are always talking about access and how we need to expand access. That word always deeply exasperates me,” Thaddeus continues. “Of course, access in the abstract is a desirable thing but the question is: access to what? We could admit a million students to Columbia but then we’d have to educate them by setting up hasty, gigantic online courses.”
“I’m not categorically opposed to expansion, but a responsible way to expand is to think about the quality of the experience that you’re offering to students and make sure that it’s not diminished or diluted,” he adds.
Ben Chang and Samantha A. Slater, Columbia spokespeople, did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
Harvard undergraduates, for instance, have criticized the quality of the overflow housing opened to accommodate the Class of 2025, which is 200 students larger due to students taking gap years during the Covid-19 pandemic. Students living in the Cronkhite Center, for example, don’t have access to dinner or hot food in their dining hall, for which they unsuccessfully petitioned administrators. Cronkhite residents live roughly a 15-minute walk away from their Houses, where they are expected to eat.
But even if all of these constraints — money, faculty, facilities — were to disappear, what is really the effect of a modest, incremental expansion such as what has been done at Yale? Of course, for those extra 200 students who get to attend Yale, the expansion is likely to have a life-changing impact. But taking a bird’s eye view, Yale and its peers are still only admitting a tiny fraction of American high schoolers. Despite its new capacity, Yale’s admission rate has continued on its steady downward trend.
Is this expansion just a drop in the bucket?
“I completely understand that argument,” Levin, the former Yale president, responds. “Why are we spending so much per student on this extremely resource-intensive method of education?”
Levin, like many of the people in this article, says schools like Harvard and Yale should expand far beyond even a couple hundred students.
His particular answer is digital learning, which has boomed in recent years with the growth of platforms like edX — an MIT and Harvard outgrowth — and Coursera, founded by researchers at Stanford.
Levin, who helmed Cousera after leaving Yale in 2013, is, predictably, bullish about its impacts.
“Why should Yale’s resources not be shared as best they can with the wider world?” he asks. “Today, we have three Yale courses on Coursera that have had over a million students.”
“That’s, like I said, two orders of magnitude more than what we have on campus,” Levin adds.
It’s an intoxicating idea. If Harvard could sever itself from its physical Cambridge roots, it could, in theory, provide a world-class education online at little-to-no cost to millions. No wonder Levin calls it a “radical opportunity.”
There’s a need for caution, though, according to Curt Newton, director of MIT OpenCourseWare, an MIT initiative to make MIT’s courses freely available online. He explains that he’s of “multiple minds” when it comes to using online courses as a replacement for an in-person education.
A purely online education isn’t suited for everyone as it takes “a little more initiative” to replace the collaborative parts of an in-person education, Newton says.
“Fundamentally, it’s a human enterprise. You need to figure out how to work together, set priorities, talk about how things are going, reset as you’re making your way through and I think that’s a really important part of the educational experience,” he adds.
In a 2021 paper, Harvard Graduate School of Education lecturer Richard J. Weissbourd and his son, educational consultant Jake Weissbourd, lay out a vision where a hybrid learning approach could allow universities to expand their enrollment.
They detail a model where students regularly spend semesters in off-campus activities like internships or public service while taking online courses for credit.
While radical for the Ivy League, this educational model isn’t unheard of in higher ed. For instance, Northeastern University operates a cooperative education program where students have the option to take online or in-person classes for-credit while they work or intern. The program isn’t required, but more than 90 percent of students end up participating before graduating.
This experiential method of learning, the elder Weissbourd tells us, would not only strengthen educational quality, but it would also allow universities to take on more students. If one-third of students — for example — participate in these off-campus activities, he explains, this means that one-third of campus housing is now available for other students.
But there may be other reasons colleges have preferred to stay small as well. In a 2021 working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research, Wharton School professor Kent A. Smetters and Graduate School of Education assistant professor Peter Q. Blair suggested a more cynical reason: prestige.
They found that the most selective institutions, such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, or Stanford, together saw only a modest rise in enrollment since 1970, compared to soaring increases for the least selective 98 percent of schools.
“Before the rating era came along in the 1970s, Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and other places, they were expanding,” Smetters tells us. “In fact, they were expanding at least at the population growth rate, if not faster.”
From his view, introducing university rating systems like the U.S. News rankings introduced a “prisoner’s dilemma” for schools vying for the top spot: substantial increases in enrollment would affect the school’s perception of selectivity, with a potentially adverse impact on their ranking.
“Admissions officers are saying, ‘Listen, we’re rejecting people who are just as qualified as people that we’re accepting, it’s almost like an arbitrary decision at this point,’” Smetters says. “Well, if that’s true, then there’s social inefficiencies here.”
According to Smetters, if universities weren’t trying to play “the prestige game,” undergraduate student enrollment at universities like Harvard might’ve been three times as much as it was 30 years ago. Instead, Harvard enrollment has essentially flatlined.
However, former Harvard College Dean Harry R. Lewis ’68 — who was dean at the beginning of Summers’ presidency but was ousted in 2003 after clashing with Summers for two years — doesn’t remember discussing a desire for prestige at the University.
“In my experience, Harvard has never had the ambition to be the most selective institution. That has never been a priority,” Lewis said. “I’ve never heard anybody say that we’re slipping because our selectivity is going down or we take great pride in the fact that our selectivity is more severe than it was.”
We ask Levin, the former Yale president, what he thinks of Smetters’ argument that universities avoid expanding because it would impact their rankings and perception of selectivity. “I think it’s entirely wrong,” he responds.
“We thought about it,” Levin says, “but just rejected it out of hand.”
“Obviously, by admitting 200 more students a year, our selectivity ratio would rise,” he adds. “We just thought, who cares?”
But there are, of course, other functions to selectivity beyond just academics.
For Evan J. Mandery ’89 — a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and the author of “Poison Ivy: How Elite Colleges Divide Us” — the more significant function of a school like Harvard is to channel students, many white and already wealthy, toward an exclusive elite. In The Crimson’s survey of the class of 2027, just under 25 percent of respondents reported legacy status, while 13.4 percent reported a combined household income of more than $500,000 a year.
Access, then, is not just access to a set of courses and educational experiences, but to professional networks, elusive opportunities, and exclusive inner circles. The prestige of having a Harvard degree helps graduates achieve professional success. “Elite colleges are acting as the gatekeeper to professions that have an outsized influence on the national agenda,” Mandery says.
“At the most basic level, nobody’s ever asked these colleges to think of themselves as ethical actors,” Mandery adds.
Indeed, Mandery’s view seems to be borne out by the data. A landmark study released by Harvard researchers at Opportunity Insights this summer found that students at elite schools “are 60% more likely to earn in the top 1%, twice as likely to attend a graduate school ranked in the top 10, and three times more likely to work at prestigious employers in medicine, research, law, finance, and other fields.”
For him, a modest expansion is “low-hanging fruit,” allowing Harvard to admit more students from disadvantaged backgrounds while maintaining its institutional relationships with elite private high schools — a solution that should be “politically more palatable” for the school’s administrators. He wants to see something even bigger.
That something begins with money. “In my book I talked about what opportunity could Harvard create,” he says, “if it increased its draw on its endowment by half a percent.”
There is a hopeful energy in Mandery’s voice as he describes how universities could holistically reorient themselves toward equitable ends. “There’s nothing more exciting to think about,” he says. “Imagine Harvard created a significant pathway for students at Bunker Hill Community College.”
Mandery continues describing the vision: “Imagine Harvard expanded capacity by 100 percent.” He points out that Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences was the recipient of a $300 million gift this year from his classmate Kenneth C. Griffin ’89, with zero restrictions on its use.
“Imagine that Ken Griffin’s gift instead said, ‘Okay, what I’m going to do is I’m going to build a new campus. And all of those seats are going to be targeted to expand access to a more socioeconomically diverse population,’” he says. “Imagine it was done in an economically-challenged community.”
What Mandery is asking for amounts to no less than a radical transformation of a top American university. His idea is echoed by William B. Dabars, a researcher at Arizona State University, where president Michael M. Crow has remodeled the school according to the principle of access, physical and digital. In 2000, the school enrolled nearly 40,000 undergraduates; now it has more than 110,000, including many getting their degrees through online courses taught by ASU faculty.
Dabars, who co-wrote “Designing the New American University” with Crow, notes that Harvard and ASU are quite different schools — one a large state school, the other an insular, private university focused on liberal arts education — making it difficult to directly apply lessons from one to the other. Still, he suggests in an email that for elite universities, “maximizing societal impact would require scaling up significantly from what might be termed the boutique production strategies that have historically dominated elite higher education.”
ASU’s credo, he adds, is to accept “all Arizona applicants deemed academically qualified” — indeed, the school has an admissions rate of 88 percent.
“Yet within this freshman class,” Dabars writes, “is a cohort with academic qualifications that match the incoming classes at Harvard or Stanford or any of the most selective major research universities.”
Lewis, the former college dean, acknowledges that plenty of applicants who are turned away from Harvard are still qualified, to some degree, to be there. “Most of the people who apply could actually survive at Harvard,” he says. “They might not profit from it as much as other people would, but they’re capable of doing Harvard-level work.”
The intense selectivity, he says, is instead a natural outcome of Harvard’s true goal: to be the best university in the world. “Harvard and its peers — the other Ivies, and MIT and places like this — they don’t set out to be selective,” he adds. “They set out to be excellent.”
But Mandery proposes moving beyond simply the goal of excellence.
It’s clear that this discussion affects him. Speaking with an impassioned tenor, he brings up his own institution — John Jay, part of New York City’s public university system, educates more than 13,000 full- and part-time undergraduates on an endowment of less than $20 million. Even a sliver of Griffin’s $300 million going to John Jay, he says, would be “transformational.”
“I’ve spent a quarter-century now teaching extremely smart, socioeconomically disadvantaged students of color,” he says. In his view, Harvard’s lucky few are showered with praise — being “told they’re the best and the brightest” — when this is in many cases some combination of luck and privilege. The rest, he says, are shut out.
“Meritocracy is a double-edged sword,” Mandery says. “If you say that you deserve your advantage, then you do necessarily mean that everyone else deserves their disadvantage.”
“Boy, let me tell you,” he adds, “I teach a boatload of students who would do really, really well at Harvard.”
— Magazine writer Neil H. Shah can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on X @neilhshah15.
— Magazine writer Elias J. Schisgall can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on X @eschisgall.