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Harvard Admissions Should Be More Meritocratic

Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard

By Lu Shao
By Steven A. Pinker, Contributing Opinion Writer
Steven A. Pinker is the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology and a co-president of the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard. His piece is part of the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard’s column, which runs bi-weekly on Mondays and pairs faculty members to write contrasting perspectives on a single theme.

Harvard admissions should be more meritocratic.

By “merit” I don’t mean cosmic merit — moral deservingness, a judgment by the almighty at the gates of heaven. I mean the traits that enable a student to profit from an elite university education, including cognitive aptitude, conscientiousness, and a thirst for knowledge.

What’s the opposite of meritocracy? Historically, positions were distributed by hereditary privilege, family ties, patronage to cronies, or sale to the highest bidder.

These are not far from the system we have here. It’s conventional wisdom that Harvard accepts just a fraction of its students by academic merit alone. The rest are chosen by “holistic admissions,” the mystery-shrouded process that considers athletics, the arts, charity, activism, and travel — together with donations, legacy status, and until this year, race.

The Harvard fundraising office once fixed me up for a dinner with a wealthy alumnus, who was perhaps more candid than they might have liked. He said, “I want to donate just enough to Harvard so they’ll admit my son.” His son was admitted.

Why should Harvard select students on the basis of merit instead? Because it serves the interests of Harvard and the country.

People vary in their intelligence, their taste for abstraction, their familiarity with literate culture, their priorities, and their personality traits relevant to learning. I could not offer a course in neuroscience or linguistics to a random sample of the college-age population without boring many students at one end and baffling many at the other.

Also, students learn not just from their professors but from peers. And universities themselves depend on curious students to challenge received wisdom and inject new ideas.

Developing the brainpower of younger generations is a public good with massive benefits. The problems facing humanity are hard, and there are obvious benefits to training the most brilliant and dedicated young people to work at solving them.

Harvard devotes exorbitant resources to this goal. It has an astonishing library system, laboratories at thrilling frontiers of knowledge, and a professoriate with erudition in a vast range of topics. The benefits of matching this intellectual wonderland with the students most suited to learn from it are obvious.

So why should an ability to slap a puck or play the oboe be given any weight in the selection process? To say nothing of having a grandmother who went to Radcliffe or a father who manages a hedge fund?

One could argue that, as a private institution, Harvard has the right to cultivate loyalty and warmth toward a fictive multi-generational family. But we’re well past this point. Thanks to its tax-exempt status, federal funding, and outsize role as a feeder school to the American elite, Harvard is something of a national institution, and its admissions policies have become everyone’s business.

Others argue that holistic admissions are necessary to avoid a class of grinds and drudges. But elite universities should be the last to perpetuate this destructive stereotype. It would be ludicrous if anyone suggested that Harvard pick its graduate students or faculty for their prowess in athletics or music or improv comedy, yet these people are certainly no shallower than our undergraduates.

In any case, the stereotype is false. The psychologists Camilla P. Benbow and David Lubinski have found that precocious adolescents with sky-high SAT scores grew up to excel not only in academia, medicine, business, and technology, but also in literature, drama, art, and music.

Instead of “holistic admissions,” I suggest using a transparent formula that is weighted toward test scores and high school grades, adjusting it by whichever other factors can be publicly justified, such as geographic and socioeconomic diversity, and allowing for human judgment in exceptional cases. (I recognize the arguments for including race, but that has been judged unconstitutional, so the issue is moot.)

Why should test scores be given the greatest weight? Because they are the fairest and most accurate predictor of success in university, as measured by grades and graduation rates.

Many studies have shown that the tests, contrary to myth, are not racially biased; they are not just an indicator of socioeconomic status; they are predictive all the way up the scale; they predict not just school performance but also life success; and they are not significantly goosed upward by test prep courses.

Moreover, the alternatives are worse. High school grades measure motivation as well as aptitude, but their value has been sinking as grades have been inflating. Personal statements and teacher recommendations are burnished by admissions-savvy experts at expensive private and suburban schools. Extracurriculars like fencing, rowing, traveling to Italy, or having your mom drive you to a church to sort clothes for the homeless, are luxuries of the rich.

Worst of all, “holistic admissions” can be a fig leaf that conceals racial discrimination: In the past against Jewish and Black applicants, and more recently against Asian applicants, who just happened to get lower ratings in squishy judgments of personality.

All these are reasons why standardized testing was historically a favorite cause of egalitarians: It promised to scramble a hereditary caste system by favoring poor smart kids over rich mediocre ones.

In the end, our admissions policies reflect what we think Harvard should be.

Is it a finishing school for the plutocracy? A third-of-a-million dollar IQ and marshmallow test? The ultimate final club? A luxury resort that includes some classes among its recreational activities? A career expo for McKinsey and Goldman Sachs?

If so, Harvard should continue to admit legacies, preppies, elite athletes, culture vultures, conspicuous altruists, and the children of donors.

If instead Harvard is an institution dedicated to the discovery and perpetuation of knowledge, it should favor admissions that are more meritocratic: that bring in the students who are best equipped to parlay the stupendous resources of this institution into the skills that will preserve democracy, enrich our culture, and solve pressing problems.

Steven A. Pinker is the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology and a co-president of the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard.

His piece is part of the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard’s column, which runs bi-weekly on Mondays and pairs faculty members to write contrasting perspectives on a single theme. Read the companion to Pinker’s piece here.

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