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Articles / Applying to College / The Harvard Admissions Trial

Oct. 18, 2018

The Harvard Admissions Trial

The Harvard Admissions Trial
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Harvard University is on trial, in case you haven't heard. The Department of Justice and a well organized group of Asians contend that Harvard has been discriminating against its Asian applicants as part of its admissions process.

Regardless of your political orientation or your opinion about why there is a trial going on, you probably have to admit that it's providing an interesting and sometimes shocking peek behind the curtain of the Ivy League and elite admissions processes. Higher education news alerts are jammed these days with revelation after revelation about what's coming out at this trial.


I thought I'd mention just a few of these insights, which may inspire you to follow along as the trial develops. The news is not quite “sensational," but if you're at all interested in higher education issues these days, especially those concerning the ongoing frenzy about getting into the Ivy League and other elite schools, then you may be surprised at what Harvard has been forced to reveal and will likely reveal during the trial.

One of the more shocking (at least to me) discoveries involves the area of Harvard's approach to development. “Development" means “raising money," something that Harvard is quite good at, in light of its $37 billion+ (with a “B") endowment. That's 37,000 million dollars. Not bad.

Does Money Buy Admission?

Keep in mind that this trial is about alleged discrimination against Asian-American applicants. But, as information comes forward during trial proceedings, other facts about Harvard's admissions protocol emerge. The area of development sometimes overlaps another hot-button issue: legacy admissions. Information about this can be not only highly enlightening for us observers but also extremely embarrassing for Harvard administrators.

Case in point: This comes from a U.S. News story that just came out yesterday (Oct. 17), entitled Harvard Emails Illuminate Power of Wealth in Admissions. While we all know that money can buy advantage, seeing the specific words and attitudes of Harvard staffers gives us a new perspective on just what they consider financial influence to be.

Here are some key segments from that U.S. News release, which cites internal Harvard emails sourced from plaintiffs Students for Fair Admissions:

A federal trial alleging bias against Harvard University underscored a cold truth of the school's admissions process on Wednesday: That money and pedigree can open doors that academics alone might not....

In one, from 2014, a men's tennis coach thanked the admissions dean for meeting with a possible recruit whose family had given $1.1 million, noting that officials "rolled out the red carpet" for the family. He added that "it would mean a great deal" to see the student at Harvard.

A year earlier, the dean of a Harvard graduate school praised the admissions chief for admitting certain students who were "all big wins." He singled out one with ties to a donor who had promised to help fund a building and school fellowships.

Students for Fair Admissions Prompted This Trial

Students for Fair Admissions, a nonprofit based in Arlington, Virginia, accuses Harvard of intentionally discriminating against Asian-Americans in its admissions process. It says Harvard holds Asians to a higher standard and consistently gives them lower scores on a "personal rating."

The lawsuit also opposes policies that provide an admissions edge to students tied to donors or alumni, saying it works against racial minorities.

To me, as I read through the U.S. News article, the most breathtaking statement is:

So-called legacy preferences are common at elite colleges but have come under fire from some campus activists who say it takes seats away from low-income and first-generation students. While the practice is commonly known, it's rarely discussed as openly as in the Harvard emails revealed Wednesday.

In one chain of emails, a top fundraising official offered Fitzsimmons advice on a potential student whose family had given $8.7 million. The official said the family had been generous in the past but that more recent years were "challenging."

"Going forward, I don't see a significant opportunity for further major gifts," the official wrote.

Imagine being parents that have given Harvard almost nine million dollars only to have a development officer throw shade on your son or daughter's admission chances because things don't look so good for your future “major" gifts! Unbelievable.

This brings to light a whole new category of discrimination at Harvard -- against high-giving legacy donors who appear to be on the downside of the current economic boom. If there's a class-action suit brought by these legacy donors, perhaps we'll see the cutoff numbers that relate to how Harvard deems a donor incapable of ongoing largesse.

Getting back to the crossovers among legacy, development and other special groups of applicants, we have learned just how Harvard prioritizes these subgroups. This information comes from How Harvard's Admissions Office Courts Donors and Low-Income Students, an article by Nell Gluckman in The Chronicle of Higher Education yesterday, which summarized the latest trial happenings.

William Fitzsimmons is Harvard's Dean of Admissions:

Earlier in the day, Fitzsimmons struggled to portray Harvard as an equalizing force. He spent many hours on the stand answering questions from John M. Hughes, a lawyer for Students for Fair Admissions. Hughes presented data analyzed in different ways, in charts, graphs and reports, and tried to get Fitzsimmons to admit that Asian-American high-school students are at a disadvantage when they apply to Harvard.

One chart listed “tips" that ostensibly increase an applicant's chances of getting accepted, in the order of their value to students. According to the chart, which was prepared by Harvard's Office of Institutional Research in 2013, having the highest score (as determined by the admissions office) for athletic achievement was listed first, followed by a high personality rating, then being the child of an alum, then being African-American. Being of Asian descent was at the bottom of the list.

In my non-legal opinion, this is somewhat damning evidence showing that Asian-Americans are on the short end of the admissions “tips" stick. If I were a juror, I would be taking special note of this fact.

Obviously, anyone who is involved with or has a deep interest in the Ivy League and elite admissions process knows about the process of rating applicants. However, the Harvard trial has pulled back the curtain on previously guarded information related to this process.

Yesterday, The Wall Street Journal, in its article, A Look at Harvard's Admissions Guidelines, posted the formerly unpublicized, and I assume, heavily concealed document that Harvard admissions personnel use to rate applicants:

The plaintiffs introduced into evidence this week Harvard's guidebook, used to assess the class that started in fall 2014, that instructs admissions officers how to score applications.

The document provides perhaps the most detailed look so far at exactly how Harvard weighs a high-school student's accomplishments and background.

[The actual, complete guidebook is included in the article.]

Harvard has reiterated throughout the trial that none of the component ratings, including the ones listed on pages 5 through 7 of the handbook below, are based on a formula. Every score, including the academic rating, is based on both quantitative and qualitative measures, Harvard says. The numbers are intended to act as a preliminary guide for the admissions committees as they discuss whom to admit, reject or waitlist.

Harvard's insistence about “quantitative and qualitative" assessment can inspire cynicism, once you scan the guidebook's pages. My cynicism comes from having to listen to Harvard's and other elite schools' admissions officials haughtily intone the phrase “holistic evaluation." This implies that they look at “the whole applicant," not just numbers.

While that may be true to some extent, what you see with this guidebook is a fairly straitjacketed approach to sorting applicants into the “tips" hierarchy mentioned above. The process of dealing with tens of thousands of applicants each year is an onerous process for these elite schools and, granted, they need some screening tools.

However, it appears from what has emerged so far in the three short days of this trial that Harvard has a definite game plan in mind for admitting their new classes each year. Unfortunately, at least from where I sit, their process boils down to a bottom line, which in many cases is money. In our world today, money seems to be the bottom line of bottom lines.

Now, on balance, Harvard, along with other Ivies and some elites, are using some of that money to help economically disadvantaged admits to attend. They are waiving college costs for those coming from families whose annual incomes are below a certain cutoff, currently around $75,000. This is good and equitable, but the influence of money in the admissions process is one of the ugly realities we're seeing here in bold relief.

Funding Influence May Be Strong

As a final thought about this today, let me cite some Harvard student opinions regarding what this trial has brought forth. In a Harvard Crimson article, In Admissions, Harvard Favors Those Who Fund It, Internal Emails Show, the school's bottom-line orientation inspires cynicism in addition to mine:

In one 2013 email headlined “My Hero," former Kennedy School Dean Ellwood thanked Fitzsimmons for his help admitting a set of students with very particular qualifications. "[Redacted] and [redacted] are all big wins. [Redacted] has already committed to a building."

Getting into Harvard is hard. But it's a lot less hard if your family promises to pay for a new building, according to internal emails presented in court on the third day of the Harvard admissions trial.

John M. Hughes, a lawyer for Students for Fair Admissions — the anti-affirmative action group suing the College over its race-conscious admissions policies — introduced the emails in a bid to prove Harvard unfairly prefers the wealthy and well-connected. Hughes read each message aloud before grilling the College's long-serving Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons '67 on their contents.

The handful of emails — most of them sent between administrators and admissions officers — hint at the College's behind-the-scenes fondness for applicants whose admission yields certain practical perks. Hughes referenced the emails as he quizzed Fitzsimmons on the “Dean's Interest List," a special and confidential list of applicants Harvard compiles every admissions cycle. Though the University closely guards the details, applicants on that list are often related to or of interest to top donors — and court filings show list members benefit from a significantly inflated acceptance rate...

The public has long suspected that Harvard favors those who fund it. But blatant examples like those presented Wednesday — the promised building, the “conceivable" art collection, the "red carpet" treatment — rarely if ever become public knowledge.

Despite its low profile, the dean's interest list has helped shape Harvard admissions for at least the past half-decade.

Where is the middle class in all of this? Apparently, Harvard (and, by inference, some other Ivies and elite schools) court the wealthy and serve the economically disadvantaged. The donut hole, then, is all those who don't qualify as either. They're the ones who, if they can get in -- the vaunted “single-digit" crowd -- comprise today's student loan crisis. You may be one of those debt-laden individuals. I hope not.

What to think of this trial, then? I view it as a long-needed challenge to the hypocrisy of one segment of the elite: higher education. I'm not dissing Harvard's (or other elite schools') efforts to tend the needs of diverse segments of our population. I am, however, eager to point the finger of disdain at those who would deny that they woo the wealthy to line their coffers. So far, that has been a big part of the message of the Harvard admissions trial.

I'm eager to see the plaintiff's legal team peel the onion some more about Asian discrimination. Stay tuned -- Yale is up next.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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