Abolishing Tuition and Increasing Admissions Transparency at Harvard College

Meritocracy: Harvard PR vs. Factual Reality

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As most readers have probably heard, a few days ago we were notified by Harvard University that the alumni signatures on the nomination petitions we had submitted were sufficient in number, and our “Free Harvard/Fair Harvard” slate of candidates would therefore appear on the forthcoming ballot for the Harvard Board of Overseers.

An important public discussion may soon begin, perhaps extending far beyond the narrow confines of a single prestigious college and its alumni: Issues of college tuition and admissions fairness are widely contentious in today’s America. Furthermore, an extended campaign of months allows factual claims to be subjected to far greater scrutiny than the mere he-said-she-said ping-pong-match of a one-off media story, however prominent.

For example, take our original argument that the enormous annual income regularly generated by the Harvard endowment would allow the university to easily abolish undergraduate tuition, a suggestion that surely must have seemed shocking and implausible to many at first mention. Indeed, the initial New York Times story quoted Harvard spokesman Jeff Neal as dismissing that claim as “a common misconception,” one which ignored the fact that endowment funds were “largely restricted” by the contributors. And unsurprisingly, the vast majority of initial media stories deferred to Harvard’s position on such matters, accepting its credibility and treating our position as presumably mistaken; and without a campaign, that would have been the end of the matter.

However, the actual numbers seem decidedly on our side. Over the last few years, the investment income from Harvard’s endowment has averaged some twenty-five times greater than net tuition revenue, meaning that reallocating a mere 4% of that vast ongoing flow of income from mortgage derivative securities and private equity tranches would be sufficient to eliminate tuition. And in subsequent media interviews, Harvard officials specified that roughly 70% of their endowment is currently restricted, which implies that 30% is unrestricted, a figure vastly larger than the 4% in question, even excluding the huge annual total of unrestricted new donations. Thus, it appears that our original claims were entirely correct, and the only lasting impact of Harvard’s initial denial is upon the credibility of the individuals involved.

A somewhat similar situation had developed in late 2012 when I first called attention to Harvard’s transformation into a giant hedge fund and originally suggested that the university should therefore abolish tuition. Harvard quickly huddled with its external strategic communication firm and a top spokesman drafted a letter arguing that my article contained numerous inaccuracies which should be corrected. I immediately responded and I leave it to individual readers to read both sides of the exchange and decide for themselves who seemed to get the better of it.

Most recently, I explored Harvard’s endless claims that its existing system of financial aid is so generous that only the rich are soaked. Plugging a few hypothetical financials into Harvard’s own “Net Price Calculator,” I quickly discovered that a pair of public schoolteachers living in New York City would likely be forced to expend the bulk of their life savings in order to give their son or daughter a Harvard education. So either Harvard considers all NYC public schoolteachers to be “rich” or their statements to the media have been somewhat less than entirely accurate.


These are the facts we should keep in mind as we now consider some of Harvard’s claims regarding its existing admissions policy. Although “Fair Harvard” has always been an equal plank of our Overseer platform, and indeed the primary focus of several of our candidates, Harvard itself has appeared strangely reticent in addressing the issue, seeming to concentrate almost all their public statements on critiquing the “Free Harvard” proposal. Back in late 2012, I had published a piece in the NYT pointing to the strong statistical evidence for “Asian Quotas” at Harvard, and the rather brief and perfunctory Harvard denial contained absolutely no specifics whatsoever.

However, whenever I raised this issue in my conversations with journalists over the last few weeks, they immediately provided Harvard’s stock response that the large rise in Asian-American enrollments over the last twenty-five years clearly demonstrates the total absence of any anti-Asian bias. And indeed, there are far more Asians at Harvard College today than there were in 1990. The entire trajectory of Harvard’s undergraduate population since 1980 can be found in the public data made conveniently available on my own website, along with that of 5000-odd other colleges, drawn from the website of the quasi-governmental National Center for Educational Statistics.

But this glib argument on Harvard’s part completely ignores the dramatic rise of America’s Asian-American population, which has grown nearly 20-fold from a very low base since 1960. Obviously, the relevant statistic to examine at Harvard College is not the total number of Asians, but their per capita enrollment, as measured relative to their college-age population. Since the Current Population Survey of the U.S. Census provides a good estimate of the latter, the calculation is hardly a difficult one, either for Harvard or for any other elite college, and the changes over the last twenty years in the per capita ethnic enrollments of Asians, along with blacks, Hispanics, and non-Hispanic whites can be plotted in a simple chart:


Now obviously some degree of fluctuation in per capita enrollments at Harvard or any other college would be perfectly understandable, and indeed the figures for whites, Hispanics, and blacks all tend to go up and down a bit over time. But the per capita enrollment for Asian-Americans of college-age has shown an almost continuous decline over the last twenty years, now being 60% lower than in 1995. One would think that an apparent drop in enrollment of some 60% would have at least raised questions at Harvard’s admissions office. Has Asian academic performance collapsed during these two decades? Are Asians no longer applying to Harvard in large numbers? I’d hope we can disregard the possibility of any anti-Asian bias in Harvard’s vaunted “holistic admissions methods,” enshrined as exemplary by the U.S. Supreme Court in its landmark Bakke decision.

Yet oddly enough, those dramatic changes at Harvard seem quite similar to what happened at most other elite colleges during that same period. Producing similar charts is just as easy, and nearly all of them show exactly the same pattern, sometimes even exhibiting a drop in Asian enrollment significantly greater than that at Harvard (though with Princeton being one of the very few exceptions). For example, here are the charts for Yale and Stanford:


These charts might help to explain the endless complaints and lawsuits from Asian-American activists and organizations over what they perceive as anti-Asian racial discrimination in elite admissions policy. Whether or not that happens to be correct, I’d be very curious to hear Harvard’s own explanation. Or might it even be possible that America’s most elite college never even noticed that per capita Asian-American enrollment had dropped by such a huge amount in just a couple of decades?

Inquiring minds wish to know. Perhaps journalists will as well.


As I indicated above, Princeton is something of an outlier in this twenty-year trend of very large declines in the per capita enrollment of Asian-Americans at top elite colleges, as may be seen from the corresponding chart:


It may or may not be purely coincidental that a sharp turn-around in declining Asian-American enrollment there began around 2007, just after Daniel Golden of the Wall Street Journal reported the anti-Asian discrimination complaint filed by applicant Jian Li, which led to widespread coverage in the American media.

(Reprinted from The Unz Review by permission of author or representative)

• Category: Admissions, Tuition • Tags: Full, Ron Unz