Admissions Agenda

Edward Blum is certainly lucky. In late 2014, when his Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) filed suit against Harvard and the University of North Carolina (UNC) aiming, as its website puts it, to “eliminate race and ethnicity from college admissions,” Mitch McConnell and President Donald Trump had not yet transformed the Supreme Court so that a majority could overturn the current, Court-sanctioned consideration of race in admissions. And Blum might be positively giddy that Ketanji Brown Jackson ’92, J.D. ’96, is now the ninth justice. Given her service on the Board of Overseers since 2016, she pledged to recuse herself when the Court takes up SFFA’s appeals of its lower-court losses next fall. Blum may be looking at a decisive 6-2 reversal of the affirmative-action procedures (based on Harvard practices) that have been the law of the land since the Bakke decision in 1978.

The University has long emphasized the educational benefits of a diverse community, and in this latest litigation has waged a stunningly successful defense of its admissions procedures. But what happens if it loses in the forum that matters most? Harvard must prepare now for a new era in admissions.

Opponents of affirmative action in admissions often outline a view of merit based on standardized-test scores and grade-point averages: take the applicants with the highest SATs/ACTs and GPAs, and voila, an institution has admitted the “best” class. (The public thinks admissions ought to be based on grades and test scores, and antipathy toward affirmative action is ever stronger. An April Pew Research Center poll found greater support for athletic preferences than consideration of race in admissions, albeit by only 9 percent to 7 percent. But 74 percent of respondents opposed consideration of race or ethnicity—while 75 percent opposed legacy preferences, and 82 percent opposed considering gender.)

For many years in the past, the College noted that its applicant pool contained many more valedictorians, and high-schoolers with perfect test scores, than the total cohort admitted annually. Harvard’s arts and sciences disciplines encompass much of the world’s knowledge and discovery; the institution has an interest in attracting students engaged in fields from classics to quantum science. It would also like to have accomplished athletes and artists on hand, to populate teams and ensembles. Hence the “holistic” review of applicants’ interests, skills, and, yes, life experiences and backgrounds—ethnically, geographically, and socioeconomically (q.v., the nine-figure financial-aid budget). Public institutions, like the University of Texas in Austin, have accomplished some of these aims by adopting a procedure like admitting the top 10 percent of seniors from every high school in the jurisdiction. Given very varying local school districts, that rule yields a diverse student body—but it doesn’t work for places like Harvard, which draw from around the globe.

What if the Supreme Court adopts the paint-by-numbers approach? A recent National Bureau of Economic Research working paper on Harvard and UNC (two of the three authors worked on the SFFA cases) presented a model projecting that the probability of admission to Harvard for black and Hispanic applicants would fall by about 75 percent and 60 percent, respectively—if every kind of admissions preference were banned: affirmative-action considerations and preferences for athletes, legacies, donors, and children of faculty and staff. That won’t happen, but the model shows the stakes under extreme conditions.

Even if Harvard and other schools are prohibited from considering race in their evaluations, they will, over time, find other means to construct diverse classes, while complying with the law. (The College admissions organization no doubt knows plenty about who is out there.)

Still, the landscape will surely look different: the admissions playbook created in the 1960s and 1970s is undergoing sharp revisions. Consider standardized tests. Harvard has announced that its pandemic-related move to test-optional applications would remain in place through applications to the class of 2030—perhaps a harbinger of things to come nationally. (At a time when litigants assail Harvard’s holistic admissions review and focus on scores and GPAs, the College’s decision to deemphasize test scores may be a strategic step toward a different way of framing its outreach to applicants.)

But there are other perspectives on the issue. In a remarkable post on March 28, Stuart Schmill, dean of admissions and student financial services at MIT, explained why it would reinstitute its requirement that applicants submit SAT or ACT scores. As Schmill noted, his school requires all students to take heavily quantitative courses (two semesters each of calculus and of calculus-based physics), and “our ability to accurately predict student academic success…is significantly improved by considering standardized testing…alongside other factors.” That said, he continued, “We do not prefer people with perfect scores; indeed…we do not consider an applicant’s scores at all beyond the point where preparedness has been established as part of a multifactor analysis.”

Upending a common critique, Schmill continued, “standardized tests also help us identify academically prepared, socioeconomically disadvantaged students who could not otherwise demonstrate readiness,” because their schools lack advanced courses, enrichment opportunities, or great letters of recommendation—all consequences of educational inequality. Standardized texts thus help overcome inequity; not having them “tends to raise socioeconomic barriers to demonstrating readinesss for our education….” He noted, “By using the tests as a tool in the service of our mission, we have helped improve the diversity of our undergraduate population while student academic outcomes at MIT have gotten better….” Thus the decision to require testing.

MIT’s academic mission is narrower than Harvard’s “We would have them all, and at their best” approach. MIT is explicit about the role of testing in helping it winnow a huge and talented applicant pool, aiming to construct a class that will thrive in and contribute to the MIT environment.

But there are lessons for Harvard here. Whatever the rules by which the College is required to conduct admissions in the future, MIT’s clear message is instructive. Harvard cannot paint a simplistic vision of its manifold educational offerings, or its astonishing array of enriching extracurriculars. But the complexity and mystery of its current admissions processes, uncomfortably unveiled during the SFFA trial, probably aren’t the way to proceed, either. What is the case for standardized testing in Harvard admissions? For athletic and legacy preferences (MIT has neither)? Spell it out.

A reset of admissions in the wake of an adverse Supreme Court decision, if it comes to that, might also be an opportunity to articulate in the clearest, most evidence-based terms what kind of student body Harvard seeks. Doing so might be the hardest work the College has undertaken in several decades. But in the current climate of skepticism about elitism, inequality, and higher education, it might be worth the effort.

—John S. Rosenberg, Editor

Read more articles by John S. Rosenberg

You might also like

Former Women’s Hockey Coach Sues Harvard

Katey Stone alleges gender bias in handling of abuse allegations that led to her retirement.

Remembering Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan

On a Radcliffe-Harvard memorial to remarkable figures

Harvard Confers 11 Undergraduate Degrees

Protestors now found in “good standing.”

Most popular

Former Women’s Hockey Coach Sues Harvard

Katey Stone alleges gender bias in handling of abuse allegations that led to her retirement.

Mechanical Intelligence and Counterfeit Humanity

Reflections on six decades of relations with computers

Remembering Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan

On a Radcliffe-Harvard memorial to remarkable figures

More to explore

Broadway Director from Harvard Adapting Disney

Broadway music director Madeline Benson on art and collaboration

How Political Tension on Campus Creates Risk Aversion

How overheated political attention warps campus life

Harvard Professor on Social Psychology for Understanding War

Two scholars’ extracurricular efforts in the Middle East