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John Harvard's Journal

Overcommitted Undergraduates?

May-June 2002

Dean Harry R. Lewis begins his annual report on Harvard College for the previous academic year (available at with familiar data extolling the College students' splendiferous academic credentials and lamenting the inadequacy of the academic advising provided to them (see "Amending Advising," March-April, page 68). He provides an exhibit demonstrating that during the past two decades, the student body as a whole has become brainier, measured by standard achievement tests. Mean scores have risen, and the dispersion around those means has shrunk. "Students have, in other words, not only gotten smarter on average—they have gotten significantly more alike in their academic potential," Lewis writes—a point bearing on faculty debate over grade inflation (see "The Gamut of Grades from A to B," January-February, page 62). That convergence, he notes, has occurred even as "the College population has become more diverse in every other way, and... the gender ratio has moved close to balanced."

Among new concerns, Lewis discusses at length whether students are over-extended outside the classroom. He acknowledges that extracurricular activities "are often as memorable to alumni/ae, years after leaving Harvard, as are their classes," and that for many students "they provide healthy balance to intense academic programs and an opportunity to pursue excellence in directions unrelated to their studies or to their intended career."

That said, what is too much of a good thing? Senior surveys reveal that nearly four-fifths of recruited varsity athletes (who make up 9 percent of the class) report spending more than 20 hours per week on their sport; nearly one-third report spending more than 30 hours per week. Those findings, Lewis writes, will be considered by the standing committee on athletic sports, and perhaps in Ivy League-wide forums. (At the behest of Ivy League presidents, the schools' athletic directors this spring are examining the number of football recruits allowed, the number of recruits for all sports, and the intensity of the practice and training commitments required of athletes—not only in-season but increasingly year-round.)

The concern over athletics, Lewis noted separately, stems from Harvard's responsibilities in recruiting student-athletes, paying coaches, and determining the conditions of competition.

At the same time, in absolute numbers, more students "spend amounts of time that are arguably excessive" on self-directed publications, arts, theater, and music than on varsity sports. (Still, large majorities of students involved in those nonathletic activities "participate at a much less intense level of commitment," he wrote. In these extracurriculars, Lewis observed separately, "students tend to find their own level" of involvement.). Beyond the pressure all this activity places on facilities, these data may feed FAS's desire to examine students' nonacademic commitments in general (see "Arts and Sciences Aims," March-April, page 61).

Overall, comparing the College today to its condition a century ago, Lewis finds in his and his predecessor's parallel concerns "a faithful adherence to a set of core values and principles designed to ensure the finest quality education and college experience possible for our undergraduates, men and women."