Admissions Evolving

The class of 2028—plus diversity, standardized tests, and legacies

The College announced March 28 that 1,937 of 54,008 applicants (3.6 percent) were admitted to the class of 2028. The comparable figures a year earlier were 1,942 admission offers to 56,937 applicants (a 3.4 percent rate). The newest applicant cohort was the second in a row to decline from the prior year: 61,220 hopefuls applied to the class of 2026, a number that represented a rebound from the pandemic.

There has been some hand-wringing that Harvard’s much-publicized campus upheaval last fall may have depressed applicants’ interest in the College—an admissions cycle already proceeding under the changed circumstances following the June 2023 decision that outlaws consideration of applicants’ race in schools’ holistic reviews of candidates (“After Affirmative Action,” September-October 2023, page 14). And in fact, Yale reported a record of more than 57,000 applicants this year, up 10 percent, and Penn indicated similar growth. But admissions data are unsettled for a number of reasons; see further discussion below.

The Crimson newcomers face a sticker price of $82,866, up from the $79,450 term bill during the current academic year—but for students who receive financial aid, the average parental contribution in the current academic year was $13,000. Still, given those nominal prices and average annual increases (for Harvard, 4.3 percent this year, up from 3.5 percent last year), private schools’ six-figure term bills loom.

Separately, applications for Graduate School of Arts and Sciences’ doctoral and master’s degree programs totaled 25,240—up 8 percent from last year. That growth may reflect the increase in annual stipends for doctoral students’ living expenses to $50,000, announced in December and effective this July, and other financial enhancements (“Graduate Gains,” March-April, page 21). The school anticipates admitting about 1,100 doctoral students; across 58 degree programs, the most popular fields by indicated interest are medical sciences, engineering, psychology, chemistry, and population health sciences.

Beneath the raw figures, much about undergraduate admissions is in flux.

Admissions diversity. Given the Supreme Court decision, colleges’ policies for admitting diverse classes are clearly in transition. Yale has been outspoken about pursuing outreach to students from lower-income and other communities underrepresented in its undergraduate population. Cornell recently joined QuestBridge, a program through which low-income applicants seek early admission to selective colleges, commit to attend the highest-ranked school with which they match, and receive a full scholarship from the organization. (Harvard is now the only Ivy institution not participating.)

Two interesting developments bear on what schools can and will do. In February, the Supreme Court declined to hear a challenge to the admissions criteria adopted by the elite Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, in Alexandria, Virginia. It eliminated an entrance exam and began offering admission to the top students from each middle school in its area (versus the top applicants from any school across the district), while also considering the “experience factors” students presented. Litigants objected that the effect was discriminatory, but an appeals court upheld the plan and the Supreme Court let that ruling stand.

In light of that ruling, people who model admissions have considered what selective colleges might do to sustain diverse classes while considering data beyond test scores and applicants’ household income. In one vivid demonstration, a New York Times tool illustrates how admitted classes become increasingly diverse racially and ethnically as increased preference is given to applicants based on the relative poverty of their high schools and each applicant’s outperformance compared to peers, among other factors.

Standardized testing. During the pandemic, many institutions waived the requirement that applicants submit SAT or ACT test scores. Since then, test-optional policies have remained widely in place. Of late, however, the tide has begun to turn. MIT reinstituted a testing requirement, noting that SAT math scores indicate whether applicants have the capacity for highly quantitative studies—and reported enrolling its most diverse class.

Citing research on the usefulness of test scores in identifying qualified but overlooked applicants, Dartmouth has reinstated its test requirement beginning with its class of 2029. Yale followed suit, with a “test-flexible” standard requiring SAT, ACT, International Baccalaureate, or Advanced Placement scores. And Brown reinstituted a requirement for SAT or ACT scores. Harvard College remains test-optional through 2030. Update: On April 11 (after this issue went to press), the College reinstituted mandatory standardized testing for applicants, beginning with this fall’s admissions cycle, as reported here.

Legacy preferences. In March, Virginia outlawed legacy preferences for alumni-related applicants to public colleges, including the University of Virginia and William & Mary. A movement may be afoot: similar legislation, covering all institutions in those states, has been introduced in Minnesota and Connecticut. (Yale has testified against; that state’s proposal would also ban donor preferences.) In reinstituting its test requirement, Brown decided to retain family preferences (for children of alumni and Brown employees)—subject to further review. As on other matters, Harvard has yet to weigh in on legacies.

 

Although Harvard has remained silent beyond suggesting that a review of undergraduate admissions is underway, changes like these, already emerging elsewhere, are no doubt being considered carefully here and at the nation’s other selective higher-education institutions. Read a full report on the class of 2028 and the larger issues at harvardmag.com/2028-acceptance-24.

 

Read more articles by: John S. Rosenberg

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