I have been following the Harvard admissions case during its first stop in the Federal courts. As more and more information about past admissions data and practices gets released to the public, I have tried to consider, win or lose, how Harvard might need to revamp its admissions process.

Quite frankly, I have wondered why Harvard, which has accepted and welcomed about the same number of freshmen since 2003, has never felt the impetus to offer more opportunities to more freshmen. I doubt that the “quality of a Harvard education” over the first two years would suffer much, though it is costly to acquire land in Cambridge, Massachusetts to house more undergraduates in either apartments or residence halls. On the other hand, I have never asked Harvard faculty whether they would want to teach more freshmen.

The plaintiff in this case, Students for Fair Admissions, has claimed that Harvard’s admissions practices have been discriminatory to Asian American applicants who were quite qualified to enroll. Asian Americans represented about a fifth of the freshmen who arrived at Harvard last fall. Thirty-five years ago, they comprised less than six percent of the class. Ten years later, they represented 17 percent. Harvard welcomed around 1,600 freshmen in the middle 1990’s. The freshman class that arrived in 2017 had just under 1,700.

At first it might appear that the plaintiff does not have much of a case. Harvard increased the percentages of Asian Americans over 35 years, even as it did not significantly increase the size of a freshman class. But during the 90’s, like today, preferences for children of alumni as well as athletes were mentioned in investigations of Harvard’s admissions practices. And then, same as now, Asian Americans were considered to be less represented in both groups.

I have never been convinced that Harvard offers a better undergraduate education or educational experience than other exceptionally selective private research universities, But I have found one significant difference: Harvard competes in more sports than peers that offer athletic scholarships and play football or men’s basketball for much higher stakes. Harvard competes in 42 varsity sports. Duke, which has about the same number of undergraduates as Harvard—around 6,700—competes in 27. Vanderbilt, almost similarly sized, competes in 19. Stanford, which has about 300 more undergraduates than Harvard, competes in 36.

I have to believe that Harvard competes in more sports than Duke, Stanford or Vanderbilt because there is support for them within their university community. But I also have to ask if the students who have no connection to athletics—and Harvard has no marching band—really care, as they might at the other three schools.

I have never heard or read of calls for Harvard to relax admissions or end Ivy League play to become a national champion in the two largest revenue sports, football or men’s basketball. However, these sports must be important to Harvard in some way. Otherwise the university would not maintain a 30,000 seat football stadium, when attendance averages less than 11,000 per home game, according to NCAA records, nor would it pay Tommy Amaker more than Penn State, Pitt or the University of Southern California pay their head men’s basketball coach.

Curious, given the higher profiles of the athletic programs at Duke, Stanford and Vanderbilt, I looked at their most recent Common Data Sets to find the percentages of Asian-Americans who were represented in their freshman classes:

Duke 2017-18: 1,744 freshmen, 340 Asian Americans, 19%
Stanford 2017-18: 1,700 freshmen, 400 Asian Americans, 24%
Vanderbilt 2017-18: 1,607 freshmen, 237 Asian Americans, 15%
Harvard 2017-18: 1,685 freshmen, 334 Asian Americans, 20%

It’s interesting that Duke or Stanford, which supposedly recruit athletes more aggressively than Harvard, since they offer scholarships and the opportunity to compete in a higher profile sports conference, could also welcome about the same, or a higher percentage of Asian American freshmen than Harvard. The major difference between Harvard and these three other schools is that while have similar numbers of freshmen, a smaller percentage of a class is represented by varsity athletes.

Suppose Harvard continued its investments in football and men’s basketball, but dropped between six and 20 sports while remaining compliant with Title IX. Dropping six would leave Harvard with the same number of sports as not only Stanford, but also Cornell, the largest undergraduate Ivy. Depending on the number of sports that Harvard would cease to compete, the more seats would become available for students who are not athletes.

I can imagine the arguments within the Harvard alumni community about dropping sports, since they are the population most likely to have competed or invested in them, though I am not sure that the students who are not athletes would really care. But if the Harvard community truly believes that the quality of a Harvard education makes it “better” than an education at Duke or Stanford, maybe the investment in a non-revenue sport should be better placed in recruiting and supporting students who have more intellectual pursuits in mind. 

I cannot state for sure whether some groups would benefit more than others should Harvard drop some sports. But I am comfortable in stating that Harvard would still remain one of the most selective universities in America, and would still need a rigorous screening process for admissions. But athletics would have less influence on that process. 

Need help in considering and comparing colleges? Contact me at stuart@educatedquest.com or call me at 609-406-0062.


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