Tweaking Harvard's admissions rules won't make America less elitist

The real battles for equality can't be fought within ivy-covered walls

Harvard admissions.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

Harvard University's decision not to require standardized test scores for admission for at least the next four years is rightly seen as a harbinger of broader institutional change in higher education. Supporters of that change argue it will make admissions fairer to students who perform poorly on such tests but excel in other ways. Critics contend it will only give admissions offices more latitude to build the kind of student body that maximizes the school's future donations — or that its real aim is to keep a lid on the number of Asian-American enrollees.

But supporters and critics alike should ask themselves a more fundamental question: Why is Harvard selective at all?

The simple answer is that Harvard has only so many slots to offer, and so it must choose. But why should it choose them selectively? Public charter schools also have a limited number of slots, and they are often required to allocate them by a lottery. Why couldn't Harvard do the same? Even allowing for some academic criteria for admissions to prove that students are capable of doing Harvard-level work, you'd have a very large lottery pool. If a Harvard education is so valuable, wouldn't the fairest thing be to choose from that group at random?

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More pointedly, if a Harvard degree is so valuable, why not expand the number of slots? It's not like there's a shortage of unemployed academics, or like Harvard would have trouble attracting them if it wanted to expand. And if Harvard didn't want to buy up more of Cambridge, it could open additional campuses in less pricey but still major real estate markets, like Detroit, Memphis, or Albuquerque. The equity case for doing something like that is far more obvious than the case for eliminating the SAT as an admissions criterion.

Furthermore, one thing the pandemic made clear is that our universities believe they can offer significant value even without inviting students to campus. Students themselves would mostly prefer the full college experience, and many students don't perform well with online classes. But if given the choice between attending Harvard remotely and attending Suffolk University in person, I imagine there are a great many students — and even more parents — who would opt for Harvard. If Harvard cares about equity, why not let them?

The true answer is that doing so would defeat the entire purpose of the institution. Harvard is selective because selectivity is its purpose.

Students who get into Harvard are blessed with an imprimatur, from one of the choosiest institutions on Earth, that they are among "the best." That's the most valuable thing about a Harvard degree. And the most important opportunity Harvard offers its students is not a distinctively better education, but the opportunity to form relationships with other members of that chosen elite. That will help them get ahead after graduation and also develop a shared understanding of the world that will smooth their interactions as they rise to positions of power and influence. Get rid of that central selectivity, as I have advocated doing in the past, and you've effectively abolished Harvard.

"Meritocracy" means rule by the best; etymologically, it means the same thing as "aristocracy." The distinctive addition of the meritocrats to the idea of aristocratic rule is the notion that "the best" should be determined not by breeding but by some combination of natural talent and character as demonstrated through achievement. Thomas Jefferson's "natural aristocracy" would be better than Europe's hereditary version because it would actually be better, and we'd be able to tell because they delivered better results than the old titled mediocrities.

That's a debatable philosophy for elite selection; conservative philosopher Edmund Burke didn't agree with it, and neither do modern day Burkeans. But right or wrong, it is an elitist philosophy, in that it's an approach to choosing the elite.

For those who share a commitment to some form of elitism, the nature and meaning of Harvard admission standards are important. Is Harvard's move away from testing a reversion to pre-meritocratic selection norms, where background, wealth, and cultural representation mattered more? If so, does that say something about the constitution of our future elite? Or does it presage a decline in Harvard's own prestige? Should we anticipate the rise of "Harvard of the poor" institutions to compete, as City College did when Harvard's admissions were more socially restrictive? If you think Harvard itself, and its relationship to the formation of the American elite, matters deeply, then these questions matter deeply as well.

But for anyone interested in making America less elitist — in spreading wealth and power more widely as well as making mobility more fluid — how Harvard selects its students should be vastly less important than how much power accrues to the kinds of institutions, from Goldman Sachs to the Supreme Court, that disproportionately hire from Harvard and universities like it. That's where the real battles for equality are being fought, not within ivy-covered walls.

Take it from a Yale grad: Harvard's selection process is not about opportunity, and it is not about equity, no matter how that process is conducted. It's about choosing the tiny few who will have a fast track to power.

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