Should Harvard accept and enroll more students?

I don’t have a strong opinion on this topic, but I hear so much weak argumentation for the “yes” conclusion that the contrarian in me rebels.

Yes, I know it looks good and feels good that an exclusive institution for the wealthy might deign to confer some of its benefits on less wealthy (but still smart) students.  It sounds like a kind of Progressive dream.  How could you be for greater social justice and oppose opening the gates of Harvard to some more students, preferably lower income ones?

But why in fact should Harvard enroll more students?  That probably would mean a lowering of standards, maybe not for the students, but for the faculty who would be hired to teach them.  On average, those turned down for tenure at Harvard, or not considered, really are worse.   A bigger school is a less cohesive school with lower standards for faculty quality stretching into the indefinite future, or at least that likely would be the case with Harvard.

Academic research is often a superstars market, where a relatively small number of people at the very top produce a disproportionate share of the value.  We should keep their working conditions and environment as high quality as possible, no?  Above all, that should apply to Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Caltech, and a few others too.

One not always-admitted little secret of our world is that a small bit of elitism goes a long way toward supporting a large amount of egalitarianism elsewhere in the economy.

And what about Harvard’s obligations?  We would reject the premise that above-average institutions have an obligation to lower their quality to meet the average of a broader pool of institutions, simply to serve more students.  That would imply a race to the bottom.  I don’t have a clear account of why we should stop at one average-lowering decision margin and not another, but I suspect you don’t either.  So maybe Harvard is OK to stay put at its currently high level of average faculty quality.

Keep in mind that enrolling those students at some other institution is a relevant alternative.  If anyone should accept more students, it is the University of Virginia, no?  They have fewer research superstars and furthermore it is a public institution, supported by state funds.  And yet they turn away large numbers of Asians — among others — with very high test scores and apparently impeccable records.

Or look at it from an ethical point of view.  You might believe we owe the less fortunate a “good education,” but surely you don’t believe we owe them a “Harvard education.”  Or do you?

(NB: It is exactly the wrong response to simply blurt out:  “But they all should accept more students!”  It remains a question whether, under the preferred change, Harvard should be accepting any of the burden at all.)

Another policy alternative, which at least the committed egalitarian ought to consider, is to send that marginal Harvard student to the local community college rather than giving him or her an educational upgrade to Quincy Street.

Yes, I understand this is not the only side of the argument and yes I am undecided on this whole question.  But if you wish to convince me that Harvard should take in larger classes, you will do this best by a) refusing to appeal to emotional, mood-affiliated yet insincere attacks on elites and elitism, and b) considering the least favorable comparisons for your arguments, such as letting more students into UVA instead.  Surely the stellar faculty at Harvard have trained you to reason in exactly that manner…because they do it so well themselves…


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