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17 October 2005

Getting into Harvard

I’ve read a couple of reviews of Jerome Karabel’s new book, The Chosen,
about the admissions processes of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. 
I’m interested both because the subject matter concerns the institution
I’m at and the students I teach AND because Karabel is on (to my best
recollection) a friend’s dissertation committee.

There has not been much discussion of the book (at least, that I have
noticed) here on campus.  Not surprisingly, because the facts
about the admissions process here do not put Harvard in a good
light.  The attempts to keep the Jews and blacks and most people
out continued well up into the middle of the last.century. 
Karabel also points out that even the current system of admissions, in
giving priority to legacies and certain schools (the private boarding
“prep” schools of the Northeast seem curiously overrepesented here),
continues the trend of making sure that Harvard and its ilk continue to
admit and educate “the right sort of people.”

From Malcolm Gladwell’s review in the New Yorker:

In the 1985-92 period, for instance, Harvard admitted children of
alumni at a rate more than twice that of non-athlete, non-legacy
applicants, despite the fact that, on virtually every one of the
school’s magical ratings scales, legacies significantly lagged behind
their peers. Karabel calls the practice “unmeritocratic at best and
profoundly corrupt at worst,” but rewarding customer loyalty is what
luxury brands do. Harvard wants good graduates, and part of their
definition of a good graduate is someone who is a generous and loyal
alumnus. And if you want generous and loyal alumni you have to reward
them. Aren’t the tremendous resources provided to Harvard by its alumni
part of the reason so many people want to go to Harvard in the first
place? The endless battle over admissions in the United States proceeds
on the assumption that some great moral principle is at stake in the
matter of whom schools like Harvard choose to let in—that those who are
denied admission by the whims of the admissions office have somehow
been harmed. If you are sick and a hospital shuts its doors to you, you
are harmed. But a selective school is not a hospital, and those it
turns away are not sick.

Posted in Books on 17 October 2005 at 11:24 pm by Nate