The Corner

Education

Harvard Undergraduates Could Be Much Smarter

Students on the campus of Harvard University in 2009 (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Roger Clegg points to Harvard University’s defense of racial preferences in admissions, offered in response to a lawsuit that alleges discrimination against Asian-American applicants. One part of Harvard’s statement seems especially disingenuous to me. After singing the praises of “whole person” admissions, the statement hints — without explicitly declaring — that the school has no alternative. Even if Harvard wanted to select students solely on the basis of academic ability, it would (supposedly) be impossible because the number of qualified applicants far exceeds the number of places in the freshman class. From the Harvard statement:

A large percentage of applicants are academically qualified to be admitted to Harvard. For example, each year, far more applicants have perfect SAT verbal scores or perfect SAT math scores than are admitted. While academic ability is important and necessary, and transcends test scores and GPAs, for applicants who are academically qualified, other factors bear significantly on admissions decisions.

In a recent admissions cycle (in which fewer than 2,000 applicants out of approximately 40,000 were admitted):

  • Over 8,000 domestic applicants had perfect GPAs
  • Over 3,400 applicants had perfect SAT math scores
  • Over 2,700 applicants had perfect SAT verbal scores

The strong implication here is that “whole person” admissions are unavoidable, as it is simply too difficult to differentiate thousands of applicants on academic accomplishment alone. But that implication is false. Look again at those numbers. Yes, the number of applicants with a perfect math or verbal SAT score exceeds the number of slots, but how many applicants had perfect math and verbal scores? Likely far fewer. For that matter, how many applicants had perfect math and verbal scores and had perfect GPAs? Then there are the SAT Subject Tests. How many applicants aced the regular SAT and aced the biology test and aced the physics test and aced the world-history test? And don’t forget Academic Decathlon, science fairs, the Chemistry Olympiad, and so on.

It’s certainly possible to sort among the academic best and brightest, but most elite universities simply choose not to do so. In a terrific essay for The New Republic back in 2014, Steven Pinker noted that only about 5 to 10 percent of Harvard freshmen earn their spot on the basis of academic ability alone. The rest are there for “holistic” reasons — in Harvard’s words, “extra-curricular interests, race, socioeconomic background, and life experiences.” I’m sure we could add legacies and donor relations to that list as well. As a result of all this holism, Harvard’s undergraduates are a less impressive group of students than they could be. According to Pinker:

Camilla Benbow and David Lubinski have tracked a large sample of precocious teenagers identified solely by high performance on the SAT, and found that when they grew up, they not only excelled in academia, technology, medicine, and business, but won outsize recognition for their novels, plays, poems, paintings, sculptures, and productions in dance, music, and theater. A comparison to a Harvard freshman class would be like a match between the Harlem Globetrotters and the Washington Generals.

Some of Harvard’s non-academic admissions goals are more defensible than others, and I won’t try to judge them all here. Nevertheless, Harvard should concede the trade-off: Admit that the pursuit of diversity in all things comes at the cost of lowering academic standards, and explain why diversity is nonetheless worth it. Instead, the university hints that “whole person” is just a matter of breaking ties among equally brilliant applicants. That’s dishonest.

Jason Richwine is a public-policy analyst and a contributor to National Review Online.

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