As Harvard defends its admissions process in federal court, its officials and legal filings return, again and again, to the importance of diversity.
There are compelling legal reasons for that emphasis. But it has drawn attention to the ways in which Harvard is — and isn't — as diverse as the nation at large. Most notably, Harvard students remain much wealthier than their non-Harvard peers.
Low-income students and their advocates have argued that the school should do more to bring those students to campus and to make them feel welcome after they arrive. But they disagree about how that should be accomplished and about whether a focus on household economics could totally replace the current system of racial preferences.
Back on June 15, Harvard filed its initial legal response to the complaint from Students For Fair Admissions (SFFA), the group that has alleged discrimination against Asian-American applicants.
In it, the university argued that it “has long understood that its students learn as much in their daily interactions with one another as they do in formal classroom settings.” To that end, the filing continues, Harvard has sought to admit students from “broadly diverse backgrounds” — meaning “geographically, socioeconomically, and racially” diverse.
When it comes to racial diversity, Harvard can point to its recent record.
For years, the cohort of American students that Harvard accepts has been growing more diverse for years. The most recent "admitted class" is Harvard's most diverse class yet. More than 15 percent of its members were African-American, nearly 23 percent were Asian-American, and around 12 percent identified as Hispanic or Latino.
That’s a smaller proportion of Latinos and a much larger proportion of Asian-Americans than make up the entire American population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And the school’s growing minority enrollment does, in part, stem from the declining population of white graduates from American high schools.
And some minority groups have unusually low "yields" — meaning the percentage of accepted students who choose to attend. Per Harvard dean of admissions Bill Fitzsimmons, only around two-thirds of admitted African Americans, for example, end up coming to Harvard.
Still, for the past three years, the first-year classes of American students Harvard has enrolled are "majority majority."
SFFA, the group suing Harvard, is not alleging that the school has failed to increase racial diversity: only that it has disadvantaged Asian-American students — who apply in great numbers and with top test scores — toward achieving its desired "racial balance," a practice which courts have deemed discriminatory.
In federal court this week, SFFA's attorneys have sought to further impeach Harvard by pointing to the ways in which — given time and all-but-limitless resources — the school has failed to meet a higher standard of diversity set by American courts over the past four decades.
In his 1978 decision in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell defended the limited consideration of race in admissions on the grounds that fostering diversity represented a “compelling state interest."
But the diversity that Powell described was not limited to a mix of ethnic backgrounds. He went on to describe “genuine diversity” as something that “encompasses a far broader array of qualifications and characteristics, of which racial or ethnic origin is but a single, though important, element.”
Subsequent Supreme Court decisions, such as Grutter v. Bollinger and Fisher v. University of Texas, have continued to allow for limited racial preferences in admissions. But they have also placed a double onus on universities: both to pursue diversity on the broadest possible understanding and to regularly look for ways to avoid using race toward that end — if it isn't judged to be absolutely necessary.
"Genuine diversity ... encompasses a far broader array of qualifications and characteristics, of which racial or ethnic origin is but a single, though important, element.”Justice Lewis Powell in 1978
That broad understanding of diversity has been thought to include the commingling of rich and poor students. And on that score, Richard Kahlenberg says, Harvard's approach to admissions is "sorely lacking."
SFFA has retained Kahlenberg — a prominent expert on education at the left-leaning Century Foundation — as a consultant since at least 2014.
In a report he filed in June, Kahlenberg repurposed the findings of Raj Chetty, an economist who himself recently returned to teach at Harvard.
Reviewing a period around the turn of the millennium, Chetty found that “Harvard had 23 times as many high-income students as low-income students,” Kahlenberg wrote.
Looking at another period, Chetty found that “about as many students at Harvard came from the top 1 percent of the income distribution as the bottom 60 percent.” (Last year, the New York Times published a visualization of Chetty's findings regarding Harvard and other institutions.)
A 'Double Disadvantage'
The number of students at Harvard eligible for Pell grants — whose families make less than $50,000 a year — has climbed, too, in recent years, but more slowly and to just 16 percent. (According to the College Board, 32 percent of all American undergraduates this year will receive Pell grants.)
When students from America's poorer precincts do attend elite schools, many say it feels like a big adjustment. And if those students are students of color who didn't go to a prep school, they can face what Harvard professor Anthony Jack calls a "double disadvantage."
"You really feel culture shock," Jack said. "You feel that intense sense of alienation from a place ... populated by people and things that you have never encountered before in your life."
Jack has a book forthcoming in February on the students he calls the "privileged poor." He also speaks from experience — not so long ago he was an African-American undergraduate from a disadvantaged background at Amherst College.
But he might also be speaking of Adelson Aguasvivas, a sophomore at Harvard. He was born in the Dominican Republic. When he was 10, he immigrated to a low-income neighborhood in Newburgh, New York.
Having that unusual life experience at Harvard "definitely makes you feel like you stand out in a way," Aguasvivas said. "There are these kids that had all these resources that you don't necessarily have. You don't know how to navigate that. You don't know how to get an internship, join a club, write a decent paper."
That said, Aguasvivas believes his possible "double disadvantage" worked to his benefit. "Being from a poor background — and an immigrant — there has been so much struggle. I've always persevered through that struggle," Aguasvivas said. "I feel like they saw a value in that."
In Search Of 'Talent'
Kahlenberg has long been an advocate for recalibrating admissions standards to give larger advantages to students from disadvantaged backgrounds, even to the point of excluding racial considerations.
On the stand, Kahlenberg said racial preferences are constantly under legal threat and travel with a stigma, whereas the obstacles that tend to hinder students on their path to an elite college tend to be "most strongly associated with socioeconomic status."
By way of an example, Kahlenberg observed that even former President Obama argued in 2008 that his two daughters shouldn't receive an admissions advantage because they "have had a pretty good deal," in his words.
Kahlenberg's analysis, prepared for SFFA and laid out in court on Monday, concluded that Harvard could trade out its existing racial preferences for economic ones and still assemble a racially diverse class that still scored in the 98th percentile on the SAT.
Jack doesn't approve of the prospect, because context matters.
To not try to correct for specific racial biases, Jack said, is "to say that inequality does not exist — because social class is not the only thing that keeps students from applying or attending or excelling at institutions like Harvard. ... That's the opposite of the direction we should go."
Jack says research suggests that low-income students of color who come to elite colleges like Harvard from private preparatory high schools feel much more comfortable, and have a much better handle on the 'hidden curriculum.' They are used to attending office hours and ready to seek out mentors, for example.
In court, Harvard’s lawyers asked Kahlenberg to acknowledge that his models reliably predicted a drop in African-American enrollment if Harvard pivoted away from racial preferences — the kind of drop Harvard could only correct, they implied, by resorting to those preferences.
Kahlenberg, for his part, put that gap down to a lack of more detailed wealth and income information in Harvard's data.
Also this week, attorneys for SFFA grilled Rakesh Khurana, the current dean of Harvard College, about the socioeconomic gap Kahlenberg described.
In heated questioning on Monday, SFFA lead trial attorney Adam Mortara repeatedly asked Khurana why Harvard’s student body didn't reflect the American population in economic terms, as well. Khurana dismissed some of Mortara’s questions as “hypotheticals," and therefore unanswerable.
Then Mortara asked: "What is special about wealthy people that Harvard has to have them overrepresented?"
Khurana, who does not have a direct role in admissions to the college, replied that Harvard is “not trying to mirror the socioeconomic or income [makeup] of the United States. ... We're looking for talent."
Khurana’s remark about "talent" seems to echo something Harvard's new president, Lawrence Bacow, told Radio Boston earlier this year: that Harvard’s admissions officers find that the children of Harvard alumni — themselves disproportionately wealthy and white — tend to appear better-prepared for the school’s rigorous curriculum.
But questions about the effects of “race-neutral” admissions at Harvard aren’t entirely hypothetical.
The body of case law on affirmative action recommends that judges scrutinize colleges’ efforts to perform a “serious, good faith consideration of workable race-neutral alternatives” to considering race in admissions decisions.
Since 2013, Harvard officials have convened two committees to perform just that kind of consideration.
The broader of those two panels — led by James Ryan, former dean of Harvard Graduate School of Education and the new president of the University of Virginia — involved a parade of experts, but was suspended in 2014 in response to SFFA’s suit.
A more focused, and much smaller panel convened in the summer of 2017 — led by Michael Smith, dean of the school’s faculty of arts and sciences, alongside only Khurana and Harvard Dean of Admissions Bill Fitzsimmons.
In its brief report from April of this year, the "Smith Committee" found that abandoning racial preferences would result in a trade-off that college leaders considered unacceptable. That report concluded that:
...no workable race-neutral admissions practices could promote Harvard’s diversity-related educational objectives as well as Harvard’s current whole-person race-conscious admissions program while also maintaining the standards of excellence that Harvard seeks in its student body.
In other words, Harvard and its experts would argue that any system of admissions preference that doesn't rely on race would result either in a class that is markedly less talented, or markedly less diverse. The report's three authors promised to review the question again in 2023.
SFFA dismissed the Smith report, calling it "a dilatory, highly scripted committee of three officials pre-committed to an outcome."
Other schools of Harvard's stature — like the University of California Berkeley and Caltech — have put "race-neutral" admissions schemes into effect. Harvard's lawyers observed, and Kahlenberg concedes, that that change resulted in persistently lower African-American enrollment at those schools.
The question of whether Harvard could foster its ideal educational community, without recourse to applicants' race, will remain a hypothetical one for now — and subject to debate in federal court.
Beginning next week, Judge Allison Burroughs will hear from students and alumni who, like Adelson Aguasvivas, say that they were helped by Harvard's "holistic" approach to admissions.
But this case may well end up before an increasingly conservative Supreme Court in the next few years — meaning Harvard may have to wrestle with these questions more concretely soon.