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Dec. 21 2009 - 11:37 pm | 107 views | 1 recommendation | 0 comments

The Harvard you don’t know

Do an Internet search for “Harvard elite” (include the quotation marks) and you’ll get thousands of results. Many of these results will include comments about President Obama from the 2008 presidential campaign (think Sarah Palin railing against elites and praising “the real America”), as well as from 2000, when U.S. Representative Bobby Rush (whom Obama was challenging in a Democratic primary) proclaimed, “He went to Harvard and became an educated fool. We’re not impressed with these folks with these eastern elite degrees.”

Blanket criticisms of “these people” rest on the idea that “they” are somehow different than the rest of us (in a negative way). Harvard students often are scorned as being privileged or connected before even getting to Cambridge, the implication being that they are not “regular” people, but rather have been bred to be “elites” and were able to game the system and gain admission to the University.

A recent Boston Globe story about Harvard’s Dean of Admissions, William Fitzsimmons–the son of a gas station owner who ended up a Harvard degree holder–puts to rest some of the stereotypes about the world’s most prestigious  university. Although many people probably don’t want to hear this, since it would mean their stereotypes about “east coast elites” might be completely off-base…Harvard actually is made up of a lot of high-achieving kids whose parents aren’t rich, and who had no connection to the University prior to applying.

Although applications are up and the acceptance rate is down, Harvard admits about the same number of undergraduate students (6,700) now as it has for the past few decades. Yet, as the article’s graph shows, over the past 30 years…

1) The number of students receiving financial aid has jumped by 23 percentage points, from 40% to 63%.

2) Even as more students got financial aid, they got more of it, too, with the average financial aid package increasing nearly tenfold, from $4,000 to over $39,000.

3) The percentage of women increased from 35% to 50%.

4) The percentage of minority students nearly doubled, increasing from 20.5% to 38.9%.

In addition to this, Fitzsimmons

has persuaded scores of wealthy alumni to fund scholarships for a rising number of low-income students, even if doing so means making it more difficult for their own children to get in. In 2006 he pushed officials to make Harvard the first school of its caliber to end early admissions, which tend to favor the most affluent, savvy students.”

Harvard, like all institutions, has plenty of room to improve and deserves to hear constructive criticism about its policies and practices. But it is not, as many will have you believe, a meeting ground reserved for the nation’s top prep-schoolers. The education and connections students gain from Harvard may help students become “elites” (whatever that means), but plenty of them start off as “the sheepherder’s daughter in Appalachia or the Maine lobsterman’s son.”


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    About Me

    I'm a Teach For America alum and spent three years as a high school teacher on the west and south sides of Chicago. I've conducted research on turnaround schools with a team from the University of Virginia, consulted for school districts across the country, and done work with New Leaders for New Schools, the Consortium on Chicago School Research, and DonorsChoose.org. Currently I'm finishing my PhD from UVa's Curry School of Education.

    My work has been published in Education Week, the Phi Delta Kappan, and a number of academic journals, and I'm a co-author of the book Teachers' Guide to School Turnarounds. I also contribute monthly to GOOD, the website "for people who give a damn": www.good.is/community/MichaelSalmonowicz

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    I am a contributor for GOOD, the website “for people who give a damn.” You can read my June column here. Past columns can be found here.