A Modest Proposal for Harvard University


June 23, 2015

By Michael Dannenberg

This past weekend, Michael Lewis, author of Moneyball, took to the New York Times op-ed page to advise Harvard on its admissions cum fundraising system. According to Lewis, Harvard’s dean of admissions confessed to multi-billionaire Steve Schwarzman that Harvard made a mistake in denying him admission to the Class of 1969. Schwarzman recently gave Yale a $150 million gift. Harvard’s dean of admission said of the Schwartzman’s denial, “I guess we got that one wrong.”

Being the satirical philanthropist he is, Lewis recommends that to maximize fundraising Harvard should provide an admissions preference to students that evidence three strong personality traits correlated with future financial fortune. Harvard should go after students with: (1) a high sense of self-importance; (2) an extreme need for external validation; and (3) a House of Cards-like X factor that he sums up as the “ability to seem to be a selfless collaborator while in fact acting in a narrowly selfish manner.”

The Moneyball author is behind the curve. He’s harkening back to Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Bean and New York Mets’ General Manager Sandy Alderson’s pioneering application of sabermetrics in major league baseball to recommend that Harvard use more sophisticated predictive analytics as part of its admission process. But Lewis’s suggested preferences are suboptimal, because morality aside, they don’t assure heightened financial resources in exchange for admission.

From a fundraising standpoint, it would be fairer and more efficient for elite colleges to auction off acceptance letters on E-bay than to retain the legacy preference or embrace Lewis’s Moneyball preferences. Get the money up front and then invest it for the tax-free returns the school enjoys as a non-profit. If Harvard is going to use admissions to generate income, it should just sell seats to the highest qualified bidders.

Or here’s a different, more serious idea that goes in the other direction. A college that favors alumni and donors in admissions doesn’t have to be classified as a charity. It could be classified as a private club. If Harvard and other elite colleges want to offer a charity tax deduction to donors, they should have to swear off the legacy preference and development admissions – or jack up enrollment of talented working class students. Schools should have to demonstrate that they’re operating as engines of socioeconomic mobility if they want the benefits of non-profit status.

Related: Elite College or Private Clubs? by Michael Dannenberg and Robert Shireman

It’s not such an out-of-left-field proposal. In 2007, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA.), then the Senate finance committee chairman, threatened the charity status of wealthy colleges that weren’t affordable to working-class families. The colleges howled at first, but many soon embraced improved financial aid policies.

But if talented, working class students can’t get past the admissions office, improved financial aid doesn’t mean much. And therein lies the problem. Despite the fact that one in five students with a top score on the ACT exam comes from a working-class or low-income family, you are 25 times more likely to bump into a rich kid than a poor one on the campuses of America’s 173 most selective undergraduate institutions.

Related: Talk is Cheap

Frankly, Harvard is not as bad as places like the University of Virginia (U.Va.) that has a Pell Grant student enrollment rate of only 10.9%.  That percentage puts U.Va. in the bottom five percent of four-year colleges nationally, and it’s a public university. Peer institutions like SUNY Binghamton and UNC-Chapel Hill have twice the rate of working class student enrollment as U.Va.

It’s time to revisit Grassley’s hammer and other forms of federal aid to super-wealthy elite colleges that have extraordinarily low levels of working class and low-income student enrollment while maintaining pernicious admissions policies that aren’t fair, don’t reward merit, and don’t promote diversity.

I see a Bernie Sanders – Marco Rubio proposal. The political left would cheer an attack on legacy preferences and inequality, while the political right almost always enjoys anything that pokes a finger in the eye of elite colleges.

More importantly, thousands of deserving, upwardly mobile young people would get a fairer chance at an exemplary education.

Harvard, the ball is in your hands. Do the right thing . . . before someone else does it for you.