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Campus & Community

Weighing the future of Harvard admissions

President Gay, other leaders discuss steps since SCOTUS ruling, share early thinking on potential for expanding opportunity

9 min read

In late June, the Supreme Court entered a ruling in the case of Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, prohibiting the consideration of race as a factor in admissions. In the wake of the decision — and after almost a decade of defending the benefits of student body diversity in the case — Harvard, having made the requisite changes to comply with the law, is reviewing its admissions policies and procedures. The University has also affirmed its longstanding commitment to welcoming students of extraordinary talent and promise who come from a wide range of backgrounds, perspectives, and life experiences.

The Gazette spoke with three Harvard leaders — President Claudine Gay, Bill Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions at Harvard College, and Joy St. John, the College’s director of admissions — about steps that have been taken to date and what’s ahead. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.


Bill Fitzsimmons, Claudine Gay, and Joy St. John

GAZETTE: President Gay, you said that the SFFA ruling “strengthened our resolve to continue opening doors.” What did you mean by that?

GAY: This is clearly a watershed moment for higher education and for university admissions. We all recognize that. We are reconsidering aspects of our admissions practices in light of the Supreme Court decision. To begin with, we have taken the necessary steps across the University to comply with the law. That said, this is also a moment of opportunity. It’s an opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to academic excellence, to reach a wider pool of talent, to expand opportunity, and to realize the educational benefits of a student community that draws strength from the varied backgrounds of its members. The important work to be done is to think deeply and creatively about how to achieve these goals in a changed landscape.

We’ve of course been working on this since the Supreme Court’s decision came down. We’ve taken some initial steps, but that’s just a start. We have to look beyond this immediate admissions cycle to consider aspects of our admissions processes more broadly.

GAZETTE: What are the immediate steps that Harvard College admissions has taken in response to the SCOTUS ruling and to continue efforts to reach out more widely?

FITZSIMMONS: Our first steps included making sure that admissions readers do not have access to applicants’ self-reported answers to, or aggregated data about, questions about race and ethnicity on the Common App and Coalition App, and reviewing and updating our application reader and alumni interviewer training information.

We also reorganized Harvard’s application supplement and now ask applicants to complete five required short-answer questions, asking students to talk about themselves in a variety of ways: how their life experiences have influenced who they are and how they might contribute to Harvard; what intellectual experiences have been important to them; what non-classroom activities (including extracurricular activities, employment, and family responsibilities) have shaped who they are; how they expect to use their Harvard education in the future; and things their roommates might like to know about them.

And we are continuing a pilot period of allowing applicants to apply test-optional. In reviewing applications, we are expanding our use of tools that help readers identify financial and educational challenges some applicants face in applying to selective colleges. We are also expanding our recruitment efforts to make sure that we continue to reach a diverse range of potential applicants from around the country and the world.

GAZETTE: Can you speak to admissions recruitment efforts, how they have changed in recent years and any expansion plans?

St. JOHN: Harvard is fortunate in that we have several established recruitment programs that have helped us expand the diversity and size of our applicant pool over time: the Undergraduate Minority Recruitment Program, Harvard’s oldest targeted recruitment program for undergraduate students, the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative, Harvard College Connection, and the Harvard First Generation Program. These programs are run by staff along with current student staff members. They connect with families using social media, email, web content, virtual presentations, and hometown recruitment activities. Admissions staff will also travel to over 150 cities conducting prospective student outreach and programming with peer institutions that include other Ivies, public universities, small colleges, HBCUs, and military academies.

GAZETTE: There have been concerns about a “chilling effect,” particularly for students of color who may be discouraged from applying. What would you say to them?

GAY: This has been a concern from the moment the court ruled. As I said to prospective students on the day of the Supreme Court decision, know that we want you here and that we are eager to welcome you to our community. We’re working hard to send the message loud and clear that we want outstanding students to apply. It’s so important that they not be dissuaded by headlines or messages that might imply you don’t belong at places like Harvard.

St. JOHN: We are always concerned about students who may be discouraged from applying to Harvard because they have inaccurate information about our University culture and community, financial aid opportunities, or our admissions process. We want to emphasize that students from many different communities and families will continue to be admitted here, belong here, and can thrive here: Our application will continue to give you the opportunity to share your full story with our admissions committee. If you are admitted, Harvard will continue to be affordable. If you have any questions or concerns, we are eager to share information about Harvard. We will continue to work hard to reach out to you, but if you’re interested in connecting with us, we encourage you to engage with the Admissions and Financial Aid Office via social media, student blogs, or even a virtual tour.

GAZETTE: There have been calls for deeper changes in admissions. For instance, the Department of Education has urged colleges and universities to look at certain preferences in admissions, targeted outreach, and recruitment programs, among other measures. Is that something Harvard is contemplating?

GAY: All of that is under consideration. As I said, we’ve made some immediate changes to comply with the new law, to revise our application, and to expand recruiting. And we need to look more deeply at a broader set of questions with long-term implications for the University. We’ve been pursuing these questions over the summer, including within the Corporation, and we’ll continue those conversations through the fall.

GAZETTE: How are you approaching these questions?

GAY: At one level, we’re aiming to articulate the values and interests that drive our admissions process — values like excellence, opportunity, access, community. At another level, we’re gathering relevant data, benefiting from expert opinion, including among our own faculty, and exploring how changing our approach in one way or another might affect possible outcomes.

We’ve been told by the court about something we can no longer do. And now we need to focus hard on reimagining what we can do, looking forward, to make sure we keep attracting students of exceptional talent and promise, whose different backgrounds and experiences energize and educate one another.

Seizing that opportunity means marshaling expertise within and beyond Harvard and proceeding deliberately, with rigor and care. As part of this, I have asked Hopi Hoekstra, the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, who directly oversees Harvard College admissions, to work with me on gathering data that can help inform future approaches by our admissions office.

GAZETTE: Are there implications for other Schools at Harvard?

GAY: This new landscape impacts all of the Schools at Harvard, and there have been conversations happening all across the University to ensure we are recruiting and attracting outstanding students to all of our programs.

GAZETTE: Many alumni were among Harvard’s most vocal supporters throughout the SFFA case. What is your message to them as you continue this review?

GAY: I am deeply grateful to all of the alumni who were creative and constructive partners and advocates for Harvard over the last decade as we fought the case in the courts. They recognized — through their own experience — the power of bringing together people from different backgrounds and how that contributes not only to academic excellence, but to their own individual growth and success.

Harvard is its people, and alumni have helped build and strengthen our community over the years through their service and contributions to our mission. We owe it to our alumni to do all we can to continue to welcome the very best students to Harvard.

GAZETTE: President Gay, you called this “a watershed moment” in American higher education. What do you hope for over the horizon?

GAY: When the Supreme Court issued its ruling, my immediate thoughts turned to our existing students, and I wanted to send a clear message to them that they belong here. I do that again today. I also thought of three specific areas where this ruling will have an impact.

First, what does this mean for talented and ambitious students who may think now that places like Harvard and other institutions are out of reach? How can we continue to reach the widest pool of talent possible?

Second, what does this mean for Harvard? How can we maintain and advance academic excellence by continuing to open doors? How can we ensure that all students can benefit from being around classmates and communities that are diverse and varied and help them see the world in new ways?

And third, what does this mean for society? We have the responsibility of developing future leaders across all sectors of our society, people who mirror the rich diversity that defines our community. It is therefore vital that we admit and educate students who are well-prepared to assume these important leadership roles.

For me, our efforts to look carefully and comprehensively at our admissions process, and to take forward any changes we will make, will have these questions in mind. How can we ensure we are drawing from the widest pool of talent? How can we reach the highest levels of excellence, something only attainable with a diverse student body? And how can our educational mission continue to best serve society?