regular-article-logo Tuesday, 21 May 2024

After a year of turmoil, Harvard College applications drop

While Brown University also saw a drop in applications, applications rose at many other elite colleges, including the University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth, Columbia, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Bowdoin, Amherst and the University of Virginia

Anemona Hartocollis, Stephanie Saul New York Published 30.03.24, 06:42 AM
Harvard College.

Harvard College. File Photo

Applications to Harvard College were down this year, even as many other highly selective schools hit record highs.

The drop suggests that a year of turmoil — which went into overdrive with a student letter that said Israel was “entirely responsible” for the October 7 Hamas attacks — may have dented Harvard’s reputation and deterred some students from applying.


Harvard’s announcement on Thursday evening came as all eight Ivy League schools sent out their notices of admission or rejection, known as Ivy Day.

While Brown University also saw a drop in applications, applications rose at many other elite colleges, including the University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth, Columbia, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Bowdoin, Amherst and the University of Virginia.

Harvard focused on the positive.“Beyond another strong applicant pool, we are delighted by the stunning array of talents and lived experiences the class of 2028 will bring with them from throughout the United States and around the world,” William R. Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid,said in a statement.

College counselors and admissions experts said it was difficult to pin down the factors behind the decline in Harvard’s numbers, but that the scrutiny has been intense and, by some accounts, the reputational damage severe.

It began with a historic Supreme Court decision on June 29, striking down decades of affirmative action policy at Harvard that had become a model for higher education across the country. It culminated in the resignation on January 2 of Claudine Gay, who was not just Harvard’s president, but its first Black president.

At that point, she faced accusations of plagiarism in her scholarly work, which she stood by, on top of complaints about her evasive testimony on antisemitism in December before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

The effect on Harvard was so striking that a cartoon in The New York Daily News by Bill Bramhall showed a girl telling her parents, “Darn. I got into Harvard.”

A private college admissions coach, Hafeez Lakhani, said the anxiety over campus climate was particularly acute in autumn. “Students were terrified about the doxxing trucks, the CEOs calling for protester names, students losing job offers for speaking up about Israel-Palestine,” he said. “I think that drove some applicants to less-spotlight schools.”

Another coach, Deb Felix, said she had referred her concerned clients to a Facebook group, Mothers Against College Antisemitism, which has gained 55,700 members since it was formed in late October, as a resource on campus climate.

But some families, even orthodox Jewish families, were not deterred by the bad publicity.

“Getting accepted to Harvard is still getting accepted to Harvard,” said Rivka Scheinfeld, whose daughter Tamar, a student at YULA High School — a Jewish day school in Los Angeles — was accepted early. Tamar said she applied after October 7, and thought she could be a voice against antisemitism. “I want to go, I want to advocate for something that I know is right,” she said.

Many schools have been shaken by protests over the war in the Gaza Strip, as well as by complaints of antisemitism and Islamophobia over the last few months. Brown saw its share of campus conflict over the war, with dozens of students arrested for trespassing following two sit-ins on the campus.

But the University of Pennsylvania saw record applications — 65,230 — a nearly 10 per cent rise from the year before, despite criticism of its then president, M. Elizabeth Magill, for her legalistic testimony on antisemitism in the House hearing.

One significant difference between Harvard and Penn: Magill resigned swiftly — on December 9, four days after her testimony. Gay, who testified the same day, lingered until January 2, as accusations of plagiarism against her mounted on top of the complaints that she had not taken a strong enough stance against antisemitism.

Overall, Harvard received 54,008 undergraduate applications in this admissions cycle, compared with 56,937 last year, a drop of about 5 per cent. That continues a trend that began with early applications, which were down 17 per cent this cycle. Regular applications were down by almost 3 per cent, to 46,087 from 47,384.

The college offered admission to 1,937 students for the class of 2028. Harvard said that despite the year-to-year decline in numbers, this was the fourth year in a row that the college had received more than 50,000 applications.

Application numbers have been high since the start of the pandemic after Harvard and other schools dropped their requirements for standardised test scores. Lakhani, the college consultant, said the boost was fading as more students realised they still needed to submit test scores to stay competitive.

But at MIT, which reinstated testing requirements, applications were up almost 5 per cent. Its president, Sally Kornbluth, survived the congressional grilling that helped topple Gay and Magill.

Among the Ivies, applications to Brown were down almost 5 per cent from last year. Still, this was the third-largest applicant pool it had ever had. Brian Clark, a Brown spokesperson, said some students were put off by a longer application with more essay questions.

Yale and Dartmouth said they had received a record number of applications, both up 10 per cent from last year. At Columbia, which also was in the news because of student protests, applications rose about 5 per cent. Cornell and Princeton said they had made a policy decision not to release the number of applicants or the admission rates.

Applications also rose at the University of Virginia and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, which was a defendant in the landmark Supreme Court decision on affirmative action. Because of the Supreme Court decision banning race-conscious admissions, colleges have said they will not be releasing the racial or ethnic breakdown of their applicants or admitted students until the summer or fall after the waiting lists have been exhausted.

However, it appeared that colleges were using other methods to enhance the diversity of their incoming classes, such as the recruitment of poor and rural students and students who would be the first generation in their families to go to college.

Harvard said first-generation students made up about 20 per cent of the class and that students eligible for federal Pell grants, a measure of poverty, made up almost 21 per cent. Other colleges declined to release the poverty figures, saying the numbers were uncertain because of problems with the federal student aid application.

The New York Times News Service

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