In a few weeks, the Harvard class of 1989 will be reuniting in Cambridge. There'll be mini-TED talks, a "Taste of New England Dinner," and a chance to sing with the Boston Pops, but I'll be spending the weekend coaching my son's Little League team and hanging out with my family.
Reunions seem unnatural to me. I refuse to participate in the charade of pretending to be surprised to see a classmate, and when I'm asked, "What have you been doing?" as one inevitably is, I never know where to draw the line between "stuff" and the full, self-reflective version one might share with a close friend. I think too much detail implies an exaggerated sense of self-worth and is hence a greater faux pas than too little detail, so I've always hewed closer to the "stuff" version, but this runs its own risk of suggesting you don't think the other person is important enough to merit the full telling of your own story.
It's a minefield and, in the social media era, one that's entirely avoidable. I've never been unable to locate an old friend or classmate online. It's particularly easy for graduates of Harvard, which maintains a great alumni website--it's where Facebook started, after all. Anyone interested in me can find my professional record on LinkedIn, family photos on Facebook, and many hilarious tweets. If one wanted to have a real conversation--as opposed to an exchange of resumes--my address is the third result that comes up when you Google me. I'm a good e-mailer and I like to have lunch.
Curmudgeonly reservations notwithstanding, I've happily attended many reunions for the other institutions with which I've been meaningfully affiliated: East Meadow High School in Long Island, John Jay College of Criminal Justice (the CUNY college where I've taught for the past 14 years), and even the remarkable Brooklyn Technical High School, which my dad attended as a student and later headed as principal. In each instance I've gone as an expression of support for the institution's social mission. Each school, in my view, offers egalitarian access, a nurturing environment, and a ladder to class mobility. I don't think this is true of my alma mater.
I think Harvard can do a lot better.
* * *
Environmental destruction may be the defining failure of our generation, but social inequality can't be far behind. Anyone who reads the newspaper knows the dispiriting statistics. Since 1980, the share of market income captured by the richest 10 percent of Americans has increased from 30 to 48 percent. The share earned by the richest one percent increased from 8 to 19 percent. The richest .1 percent quadrupled their income share from 2.6 to 10.4 percent. All the while the adult and child poverty rates have stubbornly hovered around 15 and 22 percent respectively.
Unless something changes the situation in America will get worse, not better. Countries with highly concentrated income tend to have less intergenerational class mobility--a relationship that economists often refer to as the "Great Gatsby Curve." According to a recent IMF report, in the U.S. nearly 50 percent of a parent's economic advantage is passed on to his or her child. By contrast, in the egalitarian Nordic nations of Norway and Denmark the rate is less than 20 percent. In his ubiquitous Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty argues that if our current system remains in place the rich will devour an even greater share of the pie.
A world in which Walmart's CEO makes 1,034 times more than the company's average employee is ethically troubling to say the least, but the data should worry even the most committed capitalist. A recent AP survey found that most economists think income inequality hurts the economy. In its January paper, the IMF noted "growing evidence that high income inequality can be detrimental to achieving macroeconomic stability and growth." Joining Barack Obama and Paul Krugman in calling income inequality "the defining challenge of our time," are a cast of tycoons, including Warren Buffett, Ron Unz, Nick Hanauer, Steve Silberstein, and Leo Hindery, Jr. As often as Buffett makes his case in moral terms, he notes the economic harm caused by inequality. It creates what Hanauer, a venture capitalist, colorfully calls a "death spiral of falling demand" which he sees as "the signature feature of our economy."
What can make the situation better? Evidence suggests that raising the minimum wage would help incrementally. So too would improving access to health care for the poor. A game changer would be making the tax structure more progressive. To make a dent, Piketty proposes a marginal tax rate of 80 percent for earnings in excess of $500,000 or $1 million per year. That seems about as politically feasible as Dr. James Hansen's elegant idea of taxing fossil fuels and returning the proceeds to taxpayers.
If that's true, the only big-ticket item on the table is improving access to higher education, which the IMF and many economists point to as an idea with great potential. If the data on income inequality is discouraging, though, the data on inequality in education is downright depressing. Children from poor and rich families show no differences in cognitive abilities when tested between eight and twelve-months old, but by age four children from the highest income quintile score 37 percentiles higher on literacy and math tests than children from the lowest income quintile. Higher incomes provide for greater exposure to extracurricular activities which build cognitive abilities exponentially, access to private tutors when you don't understand something, and "enrichment" materials which also help to expand cognitive abilities and critical thinking skills.
As with income disparity, the situation has been growing progressively worse. In the early 1970s, high-income families spent about four times as much as low income families on enrichment activities for their children. Today, they spend in excess of seven times more. Unsurprisingly the achievement gap has grown too--by about 40 percent over the past 30 years. Specifically the gap in reading test scores between students in the 90th and 10th income percentiles is about 1.2 standard deviations--that's about the same as the gap between a fourth grader and an eighth grader. College graduation rates have gone up substantially over the past few decades, but this has been driven entirely by increases in graduation rates among the rich. If you're born into the highest income quartile, the chance you'll graduate from college is better than half. If you're born into the lowest quartile, the chance is less than 10 percent.
Education equality seems as daunting as income equality generally, but there's good news. Meaningful change can be accomplished without government intervention, and there's a direct path between reform and results. Few investments yield as great a return as a college degree, which can be a ticket out of poverty and into another class. Consider the dramatic impact of a college degree on the prospects of someone born into the lowest income quintile. According to the Hamilton Project, those who don't finish college have a 45 percent chance of remaining in the bottom quintile and only a five percent chance of ascending to the highest quintile. Those who finish college have only a 16 percent chance of remaining in the lowest quintile and a 19 percent chance of making it into the top quintile.
In plain English, if you're born poor and don't go to college you're likely to remain poor, but if you finish college you're as likely to become rich as to remain poor. That effect holds true regardless where one attends college. Imagine the value of a Harvard degree. The average starting salary for a Harvard graduate is $60,000. It's like Fast Pass at Disneyworld or the TSA PreCheck or one of the many other ways rich people can pay to avoid waiting in line.
If there's hope, it must lie with the schools.
* * *
In the higher education universe, which has its own haves and have-nots, Harvard is the biggest have in human history. It has an endowment of $32 billion, which doesn't include the value of its land (Harvard owns 200 acres in Cambridge and 300 acres in nearby Allston collectively estimated to be worth about $6 billion), collections (the library system holds 15 million volumes), physical plant, and intellectual property (Harvard has an extremely broad policy under which it claims an interest in all research conducted by faculty members).
It's the richest university on Earth by a wide margin. The only competitor that's even close is Yale, which has an endowment of $20 billion. Harvard's worth about 1.6 times more than Yale, a ratio that makes the distribution of wealth among rich humans look egalitarian. Bill Gates topped the most recent Forbes 500 list with a net worth of $76 billion, about $4 billion more than Mexican business magnate Carlos Slim. That's a ratio of 1.05-to-one. Only four other universities have endowments that exceed $10 billion--Princeton, Stanford, MIT, and the University of Texas system. Internationally, no one is close. Cambridge and Oxford each have about $4 billion.
Harvard can puff its chest at its rivals, but even number 50 on the list of most endowed universities (Wellesley: $1.55 billion) is rich by any measure. By contrast, among the 24 institutions that comprise the City University of New York, City College boasts the most Nobel Prize winners among its graduates (nine--not too shabby--Harvard has 21) and the largest endowment, a paltry $200 million. Brooklyn College, which counts among its graduates Nobel Prize winner Stanley Cohen, Alan Dershowitz, and my mom and dad, has $66 million. John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where my wife and I teach, has an endowment of--don't laugh now--$4 million. I'll spare you opening your calculator. Harvard could buy us out 8,000 times. I'm reminded of the awe-inspiring statistic that the wealthiest 67 people in the world are worth more than the poorest 3.5 billion. It's almost impossible to imagine any meaningful change happening in higher education without Harvard playing a leading role.
* * *
Harvard's response is that it does its bit, and it's true that it does offer substantial financial aid to its students, so please let me interrupt my diatribe to give credit where it's due. Harvard is a private college and has no legal obligation to offer its students any financial aid. As a teacher, I can't resist evaluating their efforts. The question is what standard to apply. One of the great ironies of modern higher education is that it's far easier to get an A at Harvard, which has runaway grade inflation, than at a public college like John Jay, where standards haven't changed. Who knows what mark simply doing something entitles one to at Harvard? Perhaps an Ivy League professor would give the university a B. I'm not willing to go above a C-minus, but the point here is to acknowledge that it would be unreasonable to give them an F.
Okay, diatribe resumes.
When I attended Harvard the mantra was diversity, which the university began chanting during Freshman Week and repeated incessantly through commencement, like a Danica Patrick Super Bowl commercial. They said diversity so often that even the biggest Harvardphile wanted to vomit. Let's leave aside the fact that when I was there the student body was six percent black and four percent Hispanic, and provisionally grant Harvard the diversity premise. It's true that not everyone there was exactly the same.
Today the mantra is access. When I've aired my arguments about inequity in higher education with Harvard friends--inevitably ruining dinner--they practically jump across the table to tell me about the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative, celebrating its tenth anniversary, which allows anyone whose annual family income is less than $65,000 to attend for free. And, apparently, the college is desperate to give these scholarships away. But, sorry, I don't think that addresses the relevant question. When my friends say, "Harvard let's poor people go for free," my question is, "How many poor people does it let in?"
Aye, there's the rub. Let's put that $65,000 income threshold in context. In 2012, the national median family income was $62,241. So in a fair system, we'd expect to see more than half the class falling below that $65,000 threshold. In fact it's about 20 percent. From there things get substantially more depressing. Each year, the Harvard Crimson surveys freshmen on a variety of attitudinal and demographic questions including family income. In the Class of 2017, 14 percent reported family income in excess of $500,000 per year, another 15 percent made more than $250,000 per year, and 24 percent earned between $125,000 and $250,000. Let's put those numbers into perspective. To be a one-percenter you need to make about $400,000 per year. At least 20 percent of Harvard undergrads are one-percenters. So, at least as many people at Harvard come from the top income percentile as the bottom fifty.
The fact is the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative wasn't designed to change the makeup of the student body. When implemented in 2004, students who came from families earning less than the original $40,000 threshold contributed an average of only $2,300 per year toward tuition. The initial cost of the program was $2 million per year. The initiative was principally about demystifying pricing for poor applicants, which is a worthwhile goal, but quite different than increasing economic diversity
You want to see economic diversity? I'll show you economic diversity. At CUNY, 54 percent of the students live in a household with an annual income less than $30,000, 74 percent are people of color, 44 percent are the first in their family to attend college, and 47 percent work while attending school. More than 80 percent of our students qualify for financial aid.
Harvard isn't CUNY, of course, and my friends hasten to argue that poorer students wouldn't be able to handle the work at Harvard and that the school is merely reproducing inequities that already exist in high school. Not true and not true. Harvard's own dean of undergraduate education says "students being overwhelmed the first year doesn't seem to track with socioeconomic status." On the second count, saying "we're merely producing the status quo" doesn't exactly make one stand up and cheer, but the premise isn't true: colleges are exacerbating the status quo.
Relatively speaking, the data on high school completion are encouraging. There are some complexities to interpreting the data--for example, does one include GEDs or account for the length of time to degree--but the gap between whites and students of color has at a minimum closed substantially. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics paints a picture of high school graduates that looks pretty much like America. And yet, though Harvard's record on race has improved, blacks and Hispanic are still underrepresented, as they are at nearly every top college, and, of course, when one looks at the student body in terms of income it looks nothing whatsoever like America.
Now, it's easy to forget that institutions are managed by people, and I don't think for a second that anyone at Harvard is consciously racist or classist. Former presidents Derek Bok and Lawrence Summers have been vocal and eloquent about inequality. Summers calls the growing divide between the children of the rich and the children of the poor "the most serious domestic problem in the United States today." I don't think the members of the Harvard Corporation are moo-hoo-hoo-ing over tea that they've suppressed the minority admissions rate or that nefarious admissions officers are cooing that this year's class is really, really rich. Quite the contrary, admissions officers, often recent college graduates themselves, rank among the gentlest sorts I've ever met. The question then is what institutional dynamics are leading the people who manage Harvard to get it so wrong?
* * *
The elephant in the room is legacy. Harvard, like many colleges, treats children of its own graduates, especially generous donors, differently than the general applicant pool. I think also on the table should be a set of stable expectations that certain elite secondary schools have regarding how many of its students will be accepted to Harvard. One out of 20 members from the class of 2017 came from seven schools: Boston Latin, Phillips Academy in Andover, Phillips Exeter Academy, Stuyvesant High School, Noble and Greenough School, Trinity School in New York City, and Lexington High School. Of these only Stuyvesant, Boston Latin, and Lexington are public. Also on the table should be athletic legacy, which, because of Title IX, has the effect of benefitting upper-class students.
Legacy began after World War I as a way to legitimize the exclusion of Jews and other immigrants from Ivy League colleges, as Richard Kahlenberg explains in his book, Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy Preferences in College Admissions. Today it functions largely as a mechanism for suppressing Asian-American enrollment. If you want a picture of what a meritocracy might look like, you need look no further than the New York City specialized high schools which make admissions decisions solely on the basis of the SHSAT, a test that closely resembles the SAT. At Stuyvesant High School, the most competitive in the city, 77 percent of the class is Asian. Lest anyone conclude that these students are somehow economically advantaged, about half qualify for free or discounted lunch.
College admissions are anything but transparent, so how legacy actually functions remains largely a mystery. It came under some heat in 2003 when the Supreme Court considered University of Michigan's affirmative action policy. At the time, Harvard's admissions dean William Fitzsimmons said he personally reads all the applications from alumni children. It seems fair to guess that this courtesy wasn't extended to all 34,295 applicants to the class of 2018.
We don't have to speculate though about the impact of legacy. If you're a legacy, your chance of getting into Harvard is about 30 percent. That's lower than the 43 percent legacy acceptance rate for the class of 1993, but admissions rates are much lower overall, so in relative terms the legacy advantage has grown. In 1993, 16 percent of applicants succeeded, so the legacy admit rate was 2.7 times higher than the non-legacy rate. Today the overall acceptance rate is 5.8 percent, so legacies have more than a five-fold relative advantage. One study said that being a legacy is worth approximately 160 points on an applicant's SAT, about as much as being a star athlete. Since there are a finite number of admissions spots available, legacy means that non-legacy applicants are competing for fewer spots. The disparity is so great it makes most sense to conceptualize college applications to elite colleges as two separate competitions: one for children whose parents are legacies, the other for children whose parents aren't.
Who are the legacies? In 2003, Fitzsimmons told the Washington Post that the average SAT score of a legacy admit was "just two points below the school's overall average." Let's put that "just two points" statement in context. One of the most startling statistics in the Crimson survey is the percentage of entering students who had a private admissions counselor--overall it's 12.7 percent. Among applicants whose families earned over $250,000 per year, the rate basically doubled. Among applicants whose families earned less than $80,000 per year, the rate was about half. So after a lifetime of advantage--after attending better schools, with more enrichment opportunities, and having been privately tutored for an exam that's biased in favor of white people and the established elite, this group still can't do as well as everyone else. And then, sorry to be crass, they have someone write their application for them.
The principal justification schools offer is money. Fitzsimmons argues that legacy preferences are essential to "maintain our position as one of the few universities in the country to have totally need-blind admissions." Don't think about that statement too long or blood will start to come out of your eyes. If you want to feel even sicker, read Harvard graduate Dan Golden's The Price of Admissions, required reading for anyone who cares about these issues. Pretty much any section will do the trick, but one experiences a special nausea reading about Harvard's Committee on University Resources (COUR), which isn't a committee in any sense of the word I understand after 14 years in academia. They don't set policy or deliberate. Committee membership is simply a reward for people who have given generously--the standard threshold is $1 million--or who have proven themselves to be especially good fundraisers. Of the 424 COUR members, Golden found that 218 had children at Harvard, a total of 336 kids in all. Since 80 members either didn't have kids or have kids near college age, the rate works out to about one kid at Harvard per major donor.
To justify this massive disparity it'd have to be true that raising this money is imperative and that the big donor model is the only way to do it. I don't buy either premise. As Richard Kahlenberg reports, a study of 100 top universities found no relationship between the existence of legacy preferences and increased generosity. Neither Oxford nor Cambridge nor MIT uses legacy or athletic preferences in admissions decisions. Their prestige is intact, they have ample endowments, and they get great students. Moreover, technology has dramatically changed the nature of fundraising. Barack Obama's 2012 campaign raised $1.1 billion from 4.5 million donors who each contributed an average of $65.89. I can't help but think that relying exclusively on donor whales is an antiquated model. Moreover, if there were a fundraising hit, it would be at most a short-term problem. If Harvard were to admit an economically diverse class, I'm confident those graduates would be successful too. If there were a short term hit, Harvard would be well equipped to handle it, but I don't think it would suffer even temporarily. Not everyone donates strategically. Many do as an acknowledgment of good values. If Harvard committed itself to a meritocratic or egalitarian model of access, I think the money would flow in.
In any event, why is it obvious that the object of the university is to raise as much money as possible? As an empirical matter, Howard Bowen, the late former president of Grinnell College said universities act this way because they have incentives to raise and spend money but none to cut back. The Bowen Hypothesis is that universities, which by and large are nonprofits, raise all the money they can and spend all they raise. But that doesn't make it the right answer. Surely the university has a higher purpose than self-aggrandizement. What better purpose could there be than offering a humane, first-rate education to a representative cross-sample of society?
The other justification offered is tradition. Fitzsimmons says that alumni "bring a special kind of loyalty and enthusiasm for life at the college that makes a real difference in the college climate and makes Harvard a happier place." The author John Sedgwick, whose Harvard ties go back four generations, told The Wall Street Journal that "one of the salient characteristics of a college like Harvard is its history," and that "legacy students are a visible representation of that history and make it real for the students who are attending."
The problem is it's not a history worth preserving. It's a history of wealth, privilege, racism, elitism, and classism. Reading defenses of legacy, I can't help but think of the justifications offered for excluding women from Augusta National or gay boys from the Scouts. I could draw other analogies, but I'd prefer instead to look ahead 375 years and how much grander Harvard's tradition will seem in retrospect when it has broken from the past and fashioned a new university based on merit and equal access.
* * *
Enough beating up on rich people: let's talk about how Harvard beats up on the middle class. My freshman year, Harvard tuition was $11,360. Room and board ran another $4,000. All in, including books, snack money, and tickets home on the Eastern shuttle, which cost $40 one way, my parents were on the hook for about $18,000. To put that into perspective, the median annual U.S. family income was $27,735. Back then a New York City principal made around $63,000 per year. I received a couple of modest scholarships but we received no financial aid. So Harvard cost approximately 60 percent of my parents' take-home income. They managed by putting a second mortgage on their home and I helped by taking out some student loans. I finished paying off my college and law school debt six months ago. My dad's still paying off his bit--he's 70 and working full time.
But my how things have changed. Today Harvard is more expensive. All in, a year at school costs about $65,000--that's compared to a national median family income of $62,241. So whereas a year of Harvard cost approximately 65% of an average family's income in 1985, it's now over 104%. A NYC principal makes around $110,000 today, so a year at Harvard now costs substantially more than a principal takes home in a year.
If you happen to make more than $150,000 per year but less than an amount where paying a quarter million dollars doesn't faze you, check out Harvard's net price calculator. Warning: don't do this immediately after reading Dan Golden's book unless you're planning to pay for college with your own life insurance money. A family with an annual income of $150,000 is expected to contribute $19,600--that's about 22 percent of their take home. My wife and I each have a salary of approximately $90,000. After each working second jobs and some pennies I make from my writing, we total about $200,000. Our expected contribution is $49,200--about 42 percent of our take home.
There's a bubble in the range between $150,000 and $225,000 where one is actually penalized for working. The difference between the expected contribution of families making $150,000 and $200,000 per year is $29,600. That's more than the extra amount one takes home after social security and federal and state taxes. Furthermore, Harvard's annual budget surely understates the cost of books and travel home and excludes health insurance, which one is required to have. This may seem trivial, but for many families the cost of insurance exceeds the cost of a CUNY degree.
I've spent many nights thinking about this, and I can't see any way that my wife and I could send our children to private colleges without losing our tenuous grip on what she, a sociologist, says technically is a lower-upper-middle class lifestyle. Depending how real estate does, we might be able to sell our house, move into an apartment, and barely pull it off. But paying for a wedding or helping out with a car or the other things that parents like to do to give their kids a leg up would then be out of the question.
I offer my own situation only as an illustration of a larger picture: higher education in America has become a caste system with the Brahmin track reserved for the super-rich. For the kids who come from families making less than $65,000 per year and are lucky enough to get into Harvard or somewhere similar, college is like a miraculous lifeline into the upper class. But for almost everyone else the decision to attend private college is either financially impossible or possible only by mortgaging a family's future. Many families make this choice--I've met few parents who wouldn't sacrifice almost anything for their kids--but asking families to yield this pound of flesh isn't just an economic matter: it places an inhuman pressure on kids and changes the nature of the college experience.
Harvard Magazine has documented the "careerist mentality" of modern students. On-campus recruiting, which is dominated by private-sector employers in the finance industry, has grown from 2,904 interviews during the 1985-86 academic year to more than 6,000 interviews per year. Administrators say that students are career-minded in their choice of courses, majors, and even extracurriculars, thinking first about what will make their resume attractive to employers, rather than what would be fulfilling.
They're thinking this way, of course, because all but the rich have families at home that they need to support or, at a minimum, help pay back for the supreme sacrifice made for their four years of bliss. Predictably, career choices have shifted dramatically. In 1986, 18 percent of seniors said they intended to enter business. Today, it's approximately 40 percent with the lion's share going into financial services and consulting, where students said they expected to earn between $70,000 and $90,000 per year. The number of people becoming doctors has dropped by half, from 15 percent in 1986 to five percent today. Very few go into public service. Four percent of the Class of 2013 said they'd work in the non-profit sector and another four percent in government or politics. Seven percent said they'd go into education, though this apparently consists principally in participating in Teach for America.
By contrast, in a two-year alumni survey of the John Jay Class of 2011, almost as many people said they worked in the public sector or a non-profit (38%) as worked in private business (41%). I think that says a lot about what young people would choose to do with their lives unconstrained financially and unburdened emotionally by a mountain of debt.
* * *
The discussion wouldn't be complete without considering how class and race disparities impact the experience of students. With a milestone reunion approaching, I can't help but reflect on my own college days.
I never felt like I belonged at Harvard. My parents both graduated from Brooklyn College and we lived in an apartment in Brooklyn until moving to East Meadow, which is about as middle class it gets. Most of my high school classmates who continued their education enrolled at a local community college. Our most famous alumnus is Joel Rifkin, class of '77. On weekends I hung out at East Meadow Bowl and Roosevelt Raceway, a nearby harness racing track. By 18, the only rich person I had ever met in my life was the attorney who conducted my alumni interview.
Harvard was like another world. Each of my three freshman roommates came from a rich family, and each had attended prep school. To my recollection, I had never met a prep school graduate prior to Freshman Day in 1985, and I hadn't heard of Andover or Exeter. A wide gulf separated me from them. They were better prepared academically. My roommates, like all of the other prep school graduates, had been doing college level work through high school. I had written precisely one college-level paper--a critical analysis of John Donne's "Valediction Forbidding Mourning." In defense of my high school, each faculty member teachers five classes of approximately 35 students. Having now taught myself for many years I can't imagine how my English teacher--Louis Krauss, bless his soul--graded and commented on 175 twelve-page papers. It supposedly took him a month, and I believe it. Most classes at Exeter have between eight and twelve students.
The social gap was even wider than the academic gap. One of my freshmen roommates told jokes in French. One's father ran an airline. Another's dad ran a college. They had all travelled extensively. I had never left the country. Come summer, they all left for extravagant vacations. I went home and worked as a camp counselor. This isn't to say there weren't nice people--they were. I fondly remember them all joining me one afternoon at a local bowling alley. Bowling was an integral part of how I understood and interacted with the world. Needless to say, the bowling universe couldn't have been more foreign to them. No one ever joined me again.
Looking back, the gap between them and me seems even vaster than I perceived it to be at the time. Some humiliations make me shudder, and I'll only admit to one here in the hope of advancing what seems to me an important discussion. Freshman year, there was some horrible dance scheduled at the dining hall, known as the Freshman Union. The Union smelled of feet and its ceiling somehow had been littered with butter pats. This fact was gleefully noted on campus tours and widely regarded as part of the Union's charm, but I'm a modest germaphobe and lived in fear that one of the pats would lose its adhesiveness, fall to the ground, and smear me in oleaginous humiliation.
So I happily would have passed on the dance. But one of my roommates insisted that I go and set me up with a friend of a friend of a friend, a prep school graduate who went to Wellesley. When we met it took all of three minutes for her to become disinterested in me. I spoke about poker or some other plebian interest and her eyes glazed over. I don't remember exactly. What I do remember exactly is my roommate, not realizing I was within earshot, thanking her for being a good sport and me feeling about one-inch tall.
I wanted to run over and exclaim that I wasn't a charity case--that my high school girlfriend was a cheerleader and surpassingly nice (true). But I knew at some level that wouldn't have been any more effective than driving up to one of the swanky clubs near where I live in Long Island and imploring them to admit me because I possess a sincere love for the game and respect its values (also true). I might have discussed this experience with someone, but I only saw my freshman adviser, a medical resident, three or four times during the year. It was sink or swim at Harvard, a system which works well enough if you have an extensive support system or have already adjusted to living independently, as prep school students have, but for the rest of us not so much. Today, the suicide rate among Harvard students is between three and four times the national average for college-age students, and yet its mental health system remains woeful, as documented by the staff of the Crimson and Eliza Shapiro in the Daily Beast.
This experience shaped my worldview and for the rest of my four years I often saw it as me against them. At the beginning of my junior year when I improbably won an election to head the student government against a capable Andover graduate, who was supported by the incumbent, also an Andover grad, I saw it as a victory for the little people and dreamed of a new egalitarian regime. It was short lived. My successor, a nice guy, was a legacy and his successor, another nice guy, attended a prestigious prep school in Delaware. So that was that and I graduated still thinking it was me against them.
I felt that way and I'm white. Imagine how much of an outsider a person of color must have felt. Things have gotten better, but the class still doesn't look like America. In the Crimson survey of the Class of 2017, about ten percent of the class identified themselves as Black/African-American or Hispanic/Latino. Nationally the numbers are around 13 and 17 percent respectively. I can't imagine anyone watching "I, Too, Am Harvard," in which Harvard students of color recount their experiences of isolation and alienation--and how they overcame them--and not feeling heartbroken and inspired. A magnificent young woman at one point explains, "I didn't really claim Harvard. I go to Harvard, but I'm not really Harvard." I never could have verbalized the feeling as a college student, but that's precisely how I felt.
I understand that experiences vary widely and that many students view their Harvard experience positively, but it's hard for me to imagine anyone other than a rich kid feeling like a first-class citizen. More or less everyone who gets financial aid from Harvard is expected to work as part of the package. Harvard talks about this obligation in language that channels the Calvinistic views of its founder. About one in five Harvard students (guess which ones) serves on the Dorm Crew (officially the Student Porter Program), which goes around and cleans student bathrooms. Believe me, if I've learned one thing at CUNY after 14 years it's that if someone is poor and somehow has managed to make it to college, they don't need to be taught any lessons about hard work. If Harvard wants to teach someone a truly valuable lesson, it'll make the prep school kid clean his own bathroom.
* * *
As the father of two daughters, I'd be remiss not to deplore the nine all-male Final Clubs, exclusive social organizations that trace their roots back to the 18th century. Back then Harvard freshmen could join a "freshman club," then a "waiting club," and ultimately a final club. Those were the days! Because of Title IX, the clubs have been forced to operate independently from the college since 1984. It's so independent that I couldn't find a single article about the club in Harvard Magazine, which generally has done an admirable job covering admissions equity issues.
That's because the clubs are an embarrassment. The selection process--so called "punching"--isn't exactly a model of transparency, so we're left to rely on reports offered by former members. By all accounts, relevant admissions factors include legacy, social prominence, wealth, or have attended a prep school. Membership comes with perks--access to prime Harvard Square real estate (collectively valued at more than $20 million), fancy dinners, and, most importantly, access to an extensive alumni network.
In 1987, an undergraduate named Lisa Schkolnick represented by Alan Dershowitz sued one of the final clubs for unlawful discrimination under Massachusetts law. Schkolnick and Dershowitz made a presentation to the student government and asked for our support. My successor--to his lasting credit--advocated for Schkolnick, as did I, but the resolution failed. The student government voted to give Schkolnick $250 to help with costs of her suit but refused to take a stand on the clubs. Later, the state court dismissed her suit for lack of jurisdiction.
I remember thinking at the time that integration was only a matter of time, and I still do, but after 25 years, it's clear the inertial forces are formidable. In 1993, the undergraduates in the Fly Club voted to go co-ed, but the graduate board delayed implementing the decision until support evaporated. The Fox and Spee Clubs have also voted to admit women only to be overturned by their graduate boards.
Instead the direction of change has been to create all-female Final Clubs, many of which are owned by the male clubs. It feels like "separate but equal," which is a repugnant doctrine, and in any event not applicable. The clubs aren't equal--Harvard College didn't admit women until 1973, and though among high school graduates women outnumber men by a margin, the Class of 2008 was the first to be majority female. Is it surprising that women hold 4.6 percent of the Fortune 1000 CEO positions? I can make an argument that because of this history of exclusion, unequal treatment, and inferior access to role models in leadership positions that women are specially deserving of a place to meet and develop professional connections. No one could possibly advance the need among men for such clubs, which apparently bring out the worst in them. Any parent would cringe reading an undergraduate woman referring to the basement of the Delphic Club as "the scariest, darkest place in the world." Sarah Rankin, director of Harvard's Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response calls final clubs "a serious social problem in dire need of a solution."
I understand, of course, that almost all of the arguments I've raised in this essay apply with equal force to other private colleges. Indeed, I hope it's the beginning of a broader discussion. On final clubs, though, Harvard does worse than just about anyplace else. Cornell's Quill and Dagger Club admitted women in 1974. Princeton's eating clubs admitted women almost 25 years ago. Even Skull and Bones admits women, thanks in part to the efforts of John Kerry and former Yale President Benno Schmidt Jr.
It's an abomination. In case you agree, and are also inclined to ruin a few dinners by advancing your position, I'll arm you with a pithy answer for those who ask you, as they inevitably will, whether you support freedom of association: "Yes, I support the right of Harvard, a private institution, not to associate with students who choose to belong to a sexist organization that would be objectionable under any circumstances, but is especially so given the university's problematic history of exclusion and discrimination."
Don't count on dessert.
* * *
Because of Harvard's leadership position and its extraordinary wealth, these issues of access and equity resonate in a moral register, but they're also educational issues. These should be the first concern of students, parents, and educators.
The premise is simple: students learn better in diverse environments. Mixing people from different backgrounds, classes, genders, ethnicities, and cultures allows students to learn from one another's strengths and weakness and to share concerns and perspectives. Perhaps one might make an exception for mathematics and pure science classes where certain background knowledge is sometimes necessary, but even here the research suggests that heterogeneity is better. In humanities courses the bringing of different viewpoints is undeniably essential to learning and helping prepare students to live in a diverse, democratic environment.
I have a vision of the John Harvard statue jumping up and down screaming "We are diverse! We are diverse!" So I think we need to pause for a moment to define the term more carefully. Even a pair of identical twins is "diverse." They won't have the same attitudes and interests. So any time diversity comes up, we need to specify two things. First, what spectrum are we talking about? A caveat here: infinite spectra exist. We're generally confined to clumsy gross terms like class, race, and gender, but people are surely more than their component parts or, if not, then an amalgam of very nuanced parts which aren't susceptible to easy definition. Moreover, maximizing diversity across one spectrum might lead to diminishing diversity across another.
Second, what degree of mixing constitutes the magical minimum threshold of a "diverse environment?" Let's envision a scale with 1960 University of Alabama at one end and at the other Rutgers University Newark, which came in first on Forbes's ranking of the nation's most diverse colleges. Under the magazine's definition, an ideally diverse school would have one-fifth of its population belong to each of five tracked categories: African American, Asian, Hispanic, White, and American Indian. An ideally class diverse school would have one-fifth of its population come from each of the five income quintiles.
On race, Harvard does okay. When I went to college it was better than 1960 Alabama, but only a bit better than tokenism. Today its record is not nearly as strong as Rutgers, but it's better than it was. On class, of course, it's a disaster. The question is why educators and parents should place priority on class diversity?
If you care about the answer to this question, I commend to you an elegant essay, "The Disadvantages of an Elite Education," by William Deresiewicz, a former Yale professor. Deresiewicz argues that elite educations render people incapable of speaking with people who aren't like them, convey a false sense of self-worth, and acclimate people to a privileged social standing. My own experience teaching at CUNY confirms many of Deresiewicz's lessons. There are many smart people who don't go to elite colleges, often because they can't afford it or because they have families to support, as there are many smart people who don't go to college at all.
Unless you're a legacy or an athlete, admission to an elite college is largely predicated on the SAT. (And it's highly relevant even for the legacies--who need to do better than the other legacies, and the athletes--who need to do well enough.) But the SAT doesn't measure very much. I think a fair reading of the evidence (excluding studies funded by the College Board) is that SAT scores are either correlated minimally or not at all with college performance and are certainly less predictive than high school average. A handful of studies suggest the SAT is modestly predictive of college completion and future income, but none of these control for family income. This is a substantial flaw since the SAT is a biased instrument--scores go up significantly for every additional $20,000 of family income--and family income is itself a predictor of both college graduation and future income. The SAT is simply a test of analytical ability. But analytical ability is no more important in a metaphysical or utilitarian sense than emotional intelligence or creativity or any of the many other types of hard-to-define capacities that help people to succeed. Elite schools cultivate the notion that people who aren't analytically gifted are stupid or talentless or lazy. It's hard to imagine this happening in a more diverse environment.
A more diverse environment would also help to diminish the gross difference between the values inculcated at elite and public colleges. I can't remember anyone at Harvard ever taking attendance or failing to grant a requested extension. At John Jay professors routinely call roll, penalize students who fail to show up, and are generally inflexible about deadlines. Grade inflation is rampant at Ivy League schools; at John Jay and most public colleges it's non-existent. "An elite education not only ushers you into the upper classes; it trains you for the life you will lead once you get there," Deresiewicz writes. At public colleges "they're being conditioned for lives with few second chances, no extensions, little support, narrow opportunity--lives of subordination, supervision, and control, lives of deadlines, not guidelines. At places like Yale, of course, it's the reverse."
Perhaps this is as much a call to action to public colleges as it is to Harvard and Yale, but the effect of the wide gap between the values of the elite and broader society are profound. Here in the Huffington Post, Harvard Business School professors Gautam Mukunda and Rakesh Khurana (the new dean of Harvard College) told the story of how Bain Capital laid off 750 workers at GST Steel and jeopardized the company's entire pension fund, all to make a small profit. The dispiriting part of the story is that Makunda and Khurana say every private equity firm would have acted the same way. The root of the problem, in their view, is the homogeneity of the elite. Because they pass through a handful of schools and institutions, they tend to see only people like themselves, and come to believe that they deserve their wealth and power. This dynamic, they conclude, has wide ranging implication for growing income inequality, the coddling of the financial sector, and even immigration policy.
* * *
So what would change things?
First, end legacy. This may not be a sufficient condition of a moral university, but it's a necessary one. If we think for a moment about the sort of arguments we might make if we were starting a college from scratch, I could imagine reasonable minds differing over questions such as what would constitute a fair admissions process, where tuition should be set, and how to deal with sensitive issues of race, class, and social inequality. I can't imagine anyone advancing a serious argument in favor of legacy.
Second, end inquiry into ability to pay. It's impossible for Harvard and other private colleges to reconcile their self-assigned label of "need blind" with inquiry into whether the candidate intends to seek financial aid (as asked on The Common Application, upon which more than 500 colleges rely) or any other question that might elicit information about the candidate's ability to pay. In a fair system applications would be blind, as on many final exams, with students identified only be a pre-assigned number. It should go without saying that there also should be a firewall between development and admissions.
Third, recruit better and build pipelines. What's surpassingly dispiriting about the picture of educational access in the U.S. is that every component of the system is stacked against underprivileged kids; the biases are mutually reinforcing. At birth, poor and rich kids show no difference in intellectual capacities. Shortly thereafter, substantial achievement gaps become noticeable. The gap continues to widen throughout elementary and secondary school, as rich kids have more enrichment opportunities than poor kids, until students take the SAT, an instrument that legitimizes these opportunity disparities as performance disparities, though it's itself a biased instrument.
Then the college application process starts and things get even worse. The typical approach for middle and upper-class high school students is to apply to between 15 and 20 appropriate colleges including a couple of reaches and a couple of safeties. In a recent paper, Stanford's Caroline Hoxby and the University of Virginia's Sarah Turner show that very few high-achieving students from low-income families follow this model and only a small minority apply to a highly selective college. This is often because they misperceive the cost and don't believe they will succeed if admitted.
Hoxby and Turner's research is consistent with my own experience. At John Jay, about 10 percent of the students have never taken the SAT. Many of those who have didn't study for it, and many more don't recall their score. I've taught honors students for 10 years but have yet to meet one who applied to an Ivy League college--even though many have competitive SAT scores, would have gotten into a top college, gone for free, and easily could have handled the work. Hoxby and Turner found beneficial effects for an intervention that informs students and parents about the true net costs of college, waives application fees, and offers continued guidance throughout the process. Clearly changing any dynamic of this system requires nuanced intervention. The recent proposed reforms of the SAT may not be perfect, but at least they begin to model the complexity of the action that's required.
Harvard's response isn't nearly so intricate. Its Undergraduate Minority Recruitment Program reaches out to minority students who perform well on the PSAT and maintains contact with them throughout the admissions process. Again, let's give credit where credit is due--Harvard has no legal obligation here. But targeting student after they have done well on the PSAT is really about competing with other elite colleges for the disadvantaged students who have miraculously survived the system. Harvard gets more than its fair share of these, so it ends up looking pretty good, but recruitment is an entirely different matter than expanding the universe of qualified applicants.
By contrast consider a program that my father runs at Brooklyn Tech. They identify talented disadvantaged sixth graders, offer them three years of summer enrichment opportunities and lab experiences, and then tutor them for the SHSAT. Not surprisingly, Tech's profile is more diverse than any of the specialized high schools, but even my dad would tell you that the ideal intervention would begin even earlier. This is an area where Harvard can invest strategically and make a massive impact.
Fourth, restructure tuition and financial aid. I'll offer three models below. I have my preferences among these, but I'd suggest that any is better than the status quo. I note that they're not entirely mutually exclusive.
A. Make Harvard Free
Eliminating tuition would create an egalitarian culture and eliminate incentives to select students based on their parents' ability to pay. Cooper Union was free until 2013. One would be hard pressed to find a more diverse student body or a more loyal alumni base, and its academic reputation is outstanding.
Could Harvard afford this? It's difficult to sat how much it costs to run the college, since Harvard faculty teach in different programs, but we can estimate pretty well how much income it would forego. Harvard registers approximately 6,700 undergraduates who pay about $40,000 per year in tuition. That's gross revenue of $268 million. It has recently given about $166 million per year in financial aid grants. So abandoning tuition would mean sacrificing approximately $102 million per year in net revenue. Presuming that the endowment didn't generate any interest and that no one ever contributed to it again, Harvard could run the college tuition free for approximately 313 years. If it picked up the tab for room and board the money would last only 135 years, give or take.
The more substantial concern is that by making tuition free, Harvard would be leaving lots of money on the table from people who can afford to pay. "Is it really sensible to try to make college free for the children of hedge fund managers and CEOs?" asked Kennedy School Professor Christopher Avery when the Crimson floated the idea of free tuition in 2007. Derek Bok echoed the sentiment. "Should we allow the really wealthiest families in America to send their children to Harvard for free?" he asked. "I think even those families wouldn't agree with that." In the language of introductory economics Harvard would be failing to extract lots of consumer surplus. But it already leaves gobs of consumer surplus on the table, a point I'll address presently.
B. Raise Tuition Dramatically
Let's speak honestly: tuition is an almost meaningless number. Only about 30 percent of Harvard students pay sticker price, as at most private colleges. The meaningful number is the expected family contribution. How that's calculated has much more impact on families than tuition. Take my family as an example. Our current expected family contribution is $50,000 and we'd receive approximately $10,000 in financial aid. If Harvard doubled tuition, neither our situation nor Harvard's would change. We'd receive $70,000 in financial aid instead of $10,000, but our out-of-pocket expense would remain $50,000. The optics would change. Harvard would appear to be giving us a lot more financial aid, but this simply exposes gross financial aid as another meaningless figure. The cost to Harvard of educating our child wouldn't change.
The only people whose situation would change is the very rich, whose out-of-pocket expenses are capped at the tuition rate regardless of ability to pay. According to the net price calculator a family earning $225,000 per year is expected to contribute $60,350 per year--about 26 percent of their gross income. A family earning $2,250,000 per year is expected to contribute $60,350 per year--about 2.6 percent of their gross income. It's similarly regressive to the social security tax of 6.2 percent on the first $117,000 you earn.
What's the market price of a Harvard degree? Reading Dan Golden's book, it sounds like it's around $1 million. Since Harvard is effectively selling some degrees anyway, wouldn't it be better to be explicit about this, charge full freight, and use the additional revenue to admit more poor students or reduce the expected contributions of middle-class families?
C. However High Tuition Is Set, Loan Students the Money and Means Test Their Ability to Repay
Harvard has recently shifted to giving more financial aid as grants instead of loans. The motive is noble, I think. Students are hardly indifferent between the forms of financial aid. In the example above where Harvard doubled tuition, I said our situation wouldn't change. This presumed that the financial aid came as a grant and not a loan. Not many parents could in good conscience allow their child to assume $500,000 in debt.
The calculus would be different, though, if Harvard offered meaningful loan forgiveness. Many professional graduate schools follow this model. Stanford Law School's loan repayment assistance program, generally regarded as the best in the county, forgives the debt of lawyers who work in public service. Tufts recently announced an initiative to repay loans for graduates who choose public service jobs. Program such as these have the potential to shift the career choices that undergraduates make. At Stanford approximately 20 percent of the class of 2010 is working in public service.
Such a model also has the benefit of getting more from people who have the ability to pay. Something seems wrong with a system that gives a free education to a handful of underprivileged students only to train them to become investment bankers and management consultants. Better to educate underprivileged kids to become bankers than rich kids, but I'm not sure why anyone choosing these careers wouldn't be expected to repay the cost of his or her education. Maybe, Heaven forfend, it would create a disincentive to take this path. Derek Bok once said,"We must also ask ourselves whether it is enough to offer a Harvard education to the brightest applicants without asking how their talents will be used. A Harvard education must serve a larger social purpose if it is to justify our existence and inspirit our students."
I imagine an objection to a borrow-first-pay-back-later-if-you-can-plan would be clarity over how much you're going to owe. He's a simple idea: you pay no tuition up front, but pay Harvard one percent of what you make every year for the rest of your life--a secular tithe.
Finally, restructure admissions.
I can only imagine how many blasphemes I've uttered to this point, but none I'm sure will be quite so heretical as what I will say last and none would do nearly as much to change the culture of Harvard, higher education, and, dare I say, America. Here it is: make admission random among highly qualified applicants.
Stanford's admissions dean Richard Shaw estimates that about 80 percent of applicants to Stanford can handle the work. What would we be giving up by shifting the focus in admissions from who deserves a spot at Harvard to who's capable of doing the work? Not much. SAT scores have no demonstrable correlation with success in school. What do application essays add in a universe where rich kids can pay someone to write--sorry, edit--their essays?
And, apologies to alumni interviewers, but social science research is clear that interviews are very poorly predictive of performance. Interviewers look for information that supports their pre-conceived belief about a candidate (the technical term is confirmation bias). Their judgments are shaped by superficial characteristics such as a candidate's attractiveness, race and gender. One study found that applicant obesity accounted for 35 percent of the variance in hiring decisions. Interviewers tend to be anchored to their first impressions, and rely heavily on intuition, which is notoriously unreliable.
The only quasi-legitimate fear I could imagine Harvard articulating is that if it admitted randomly among students who scored above, say, 2200 on the SAT, is that its average SAT score might marginally go down (it's currently 2237--remember Harvard admits lots of legacies and athletes who drive the score down). So it might drop in the U.S. News & World Report rankings, although this risk would evaporate if other schools followed suit. The fear would be about going first. I suppose its athletic teams might get worse. It's hard to take this concern seriously.
The offsetting benefits would be immeasurable. Harvard would get a freshman class that mirrored the race, gender, class and ethnicity of the applicant pool. Legacy would disappear as a special status. Many kids whose parents went to Harvard or taught on the faculty would still get in, but only by virtue of proving themselves qualified to attend the school.
Today, the narrative colleges offer is that students are admitted because they deserve to be admitted. But, as Derek Bok said in his final commencement address in 1991:
Admiring the ablest students in America is a noble practice, but in today's society, children from working-class families, from urban ghettos, from country villages, are much too often handicapped by poor schools, by broken homes, by troubled neighborhoods, to fare well in the stiff competition to enter Harvard College. Despite the [millions of] dollars in undergraduate scholarships that we award each year, the fact is that we enroll fewer students from farm communities or blue-collar families than we did 75 or even 100 years ago.
How much more honest and constructive would it be to speak instead of desert of opportunity? To speak of a Harvard education not as an entitlement, but as a gift of enormous magnitude--an opening of one's mind to a lifetime of learning--bestowed as an act of grace upon a select few, each of whom is the beneficiary of great luck. For some this luck comes early and often.
For me it came in the form of parents who relentlessly advocated for my educational opportunity and insisted that I live my life as if it had no limits. For others, it comes at the moment when the thick admissions envelope arrives in the mail. But everyone who has had the privilege of walking through Harvard Yard and collecting a diploma is lucky beyond words and should have the humility to say so.
* * *
How can change happen? Most importantly people need to start speaking up. Student and alumni pressure matters, as we've seen recently in regard to the epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses. Of course, issues of access and equality aren't just Harvard issues. If your alma mater isn't doing enough, say so.
More substantially, I'm working with a group of students including Tara Raghuveer, the immediate past president of the Harvard Undergraduate Council, to start a counter-endowment, provisionally titled the Endowment for Equity. This will be a vehicle, similar to the Endowment for Divestiture, for Harvard alumni to contribute to an escrow fund the release of which will be conditioned on Harvard's ending of legacy preferences, eliminating inquiry into ability to pay, and implementing a meaningful plan to improve class diversity. We hope this will become a model of institutionalized protest that will be emulated at other colleges, and a means for an alumnus or alumna to express support for the nobler purposes of his or her alma mater while also drawing attention to the need for dramatic change.
Like thousands of other Harvard students (and thanks to MOOCs, hundreds of thousands more around the world) I had the privilege to take "Justice" in Sanders Theatre with Professor Michael Sandel. In the language of the course, I cannot say that Harvard or any private college has a duty to admit a more representative class. I advance this only as my vision of the ideal university, in the hopes that others may share it and that, with meaningful progress, I'll join my classmates at our fiftieth reunion.
I'll plan a bowling party. Shoes are on me.