• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

Harvard Responds (Sort Of)

Do they sell exclusivity, or does it just happen?

April 12, 2021
 
 

On Friday, I posted a conversation I’d had with The Girl on Thursday. The conversation was about her concerns about how much harder it is to get into certain universities than it used to be, now that many have gone test optional. (Regular readers will recall that she took the SAT anyway, mostly to see if she could beat her brother’s score. She did. To his credit, he responded graciously.) I explained that a system that equates exclusivity with quality is essentially using dashed hopes as fuel. But I also suggested that there are many ways to be successful in the world, and that going someplace with a name isn’t required.

A few hours later, Michael Smith, a former dean from Harvard, responded. Rather than paraphrasing, I think it’s worth quoting directly.

Let me be clear, exclusivity is not what we’re “selling” nor are we selling anything. We don’t control rankings, but more importantly, we don’t set our strategy by any external ranking. “The Girl” got a letter from Harvard because she should consider Harvard. We want her to apply because she’s got the talent and drive that belongs at a place like Harvard, if she decides it’s right for her.

Never did we send out materials to individual students because we simply wanted a bigger applicant pool. I can assure you that I had many conversations with the Harvard Admissions dean to ensure that we were reaching students that we would consider admitting to Harvard, and never encouraging students just to increase the size of the pool.

And above all else, we NEVER bragged about the large number of students we were unable to admit. That’s insulting, and as someone like me who has dedicated much of his life to education, you should understand how that poisons an educational environment.

Readers are invited to judge for themselves.

For what it’s worth, my interpretation is that the disagreement comes down to whether we’re discussing personal intentions or systemic effects. I don’t know Dean Smith, and I very much doubt that anyone at Harvard knows TG. He says that he never specifically intended to inflate the university’s numbers; I take him at his word. I assume that the letter they sent her wasn’t specifically part of a nefarious plot against her personally. But neither of those changes the fact that Harvard (and similar places) sells exclusivity, and that exclusivity is, by definition, a function of how many people you turn away.

The easiest way to prove me wrong would be for exclusive schools to expand their capacity significantly and take far more qualified applicants. That way, they could spread their excellence around; only their relative exclusivity would suffer. In the U.S., that generally has not been happening. (Rice University is an apparent exception.) Instead, acceptance rates have hit all-time lows this year. As the father of a 16-year-old daughter for whom the college admissions process is scary and real, I can attest that the applicant’s-eye view is very much what I conveyed last week. System effects can emerge through an accretion of individually rational decisions over time, independent of any one person’s conscious intention. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t real.

For a school with a single-digit acceptance rate to send out direct mail solicitations to teenagers around the country and at considerable expense, I have to assume there’s a reason. (For the record, I agree that TG is wildly capable, academically ambitious and generally great. Any school would be lucky to have her. I will also confess to some bias in her case.) In the case of Harvard, I very much doubt that it’s about building brand awareness or name recognition. It’s already famous. The campaign is clearly about building an applicant pool, even though it certainly doesn’t need its pool to get any bigger. Dean Smith’s claim about targeting only those who meet certain qualifications may well be true. But it begs the larger question.

Ultimately, my issue isn’t with Dean Smith or with Harvard. It’s with the equation of exclusivity with excellence. Those of us in the community college world favor inclusivity, rather than exclusivity, and we’re stigmatized for it; Groucho Marx’s line about never joining a club that would accept him as a member lands differently here. The #EndCCStigma campaign has plenty of work ahead of it.

I don’t see the challenge facing America, or higher education, as a lack of talent. The talent is out there, often in much greater quantities than our credentialing systems assume. But we’ve built a pecking order in higher education based overwhelmingly on how much talent a given school can turn away. There’s something deeply wrong with that. TG figured that out intuitively. She’s right. Here’s hoping the folks at the places currently on top start to figure that out, too.

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