Harvard for public students only

Should Harvard deny admission to private-school students? A Crimson columnist argues that dreams of Harvard admission would revive the public system as ambitious students rejected private options.

(Public school) students would be more engaged in their academics, and their purposefulness would be contagious. The most ambitious Harvard hopefuls, newly returned to their public schools, would revitalize extracurriculars with their passion and talent. Quality teachers, as well, might be likelier to seek a job at a public school, where they are sorely needed. Most importantly, it would force parents, especially influential or wealthy parents, to have more of a stake in public education.

Few students have a realistic shot at Harvard and most of those in the public system attend high-quality suburban high schools or magnet schools that serve the most ambitious students.

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Comments

  1. Someday Nick Rakich will figure out that the world revolves around neither him nor Harvard.
    * * * * * *
    Two little boys,
    Late one night,
    Tried to fly to Harvard
    On the tail of a kite.

    But the kite string broke
    And off they fell,
    They didn’t get to Harvard,
    They went to….

    Now, don’t get excited,
    And don’t turn pale,
    They didn’t go to Harvard,
    They went to Yale.
    * * * * * *
    There are plenty of other schools that provide a great education.

    (Stanford, ’80)

  2. Of course, with grade inflation so rampant, it would be difficult to argue that a Harvard degree is worth the paper its printed on. Unless they’ve changed things, a pulse is pretty much enough to guarantee a C.

    Has anyone ever taken a look at the criteria used by places like US News & World Report for college rankings? Ever notice that none of the criteria actually have anything to do with education?

  3. The public system does not need any of the private school students, or parents. The public system has a surfeit of intelligent, involved students and affluent parents. Of course, most public schools are structured in such a way that parents, and students, have negligible influence. Rakich’s argument is akin to arguing that sending all the prisoners of minimum-security prisons to the maximum-security prisons will make the latter more humane, and increase the chances of rehabilitation.

    If Harvard students could get over their own blinding magnificence, the world would be a better place.

  4. On the one hand, I’m totally charmed by this idea. On the other hand:

    1) People who want to go to Harvard are also interested in going to Yale, Princeton, etc., and if private school is still providing them a leg up in those games, it’ll still have an appeal.

    2) I think his whole argument is still trapped in this implicit concept of class. Look at “Many high-school students (and parents) dream of a Harvard education, and quite a few try to get a leg up by attending an elite private high school. If, however, they knew that a public-school education would offer a better opportunity…” Who are the people dreaming of Harvard educations? Primarily the relatively affluent and culturally connected. Who are the people who are even going to know if Harvard implements a public-only policy? Again, the very people who already knew how the game is played — the people who already had a tremendous cultural-capital advantage in Harvard admissions.

    One of my friends growing up had never even heard of MIT; how much are the policy actions of elite colleges going to affect her high school plans? Many, many of my high school classmates (including the valedictorian) went to the local public university because they saw out-of-state schools as a waste of money. Our guidance counselors would tell you flat-out that you were on your own if you wanted to apply anywhere out-of-state. (And, of course, it’s not as if we *had* a local prep school you could go to, anyway. There was public school and Catholic school. I knew two kids who went away to boarding school, but that was really weird, and I only knew them because my parents worked for that university so we moved in educated circles.)

    To me, this article’s author seems completely unaware of these vast swathes of our culture. He’s trapped in that Harvard belief that Harvard is the center of everybody’s universe. The kids this policy would influence are primarily the kids whose choice was between private schools and wealthy suburban high schools — not the ones that needed a boost.

  5. This reminds me of a similarly stupid column that I read shortly after I started grad school at Stanford. I can’t even recall what the column was about, but the author was whining about something, and included the comment that the “whole point” of Stanford was the undergraduates. Since Stanford at that time had more graduate students than undergraduates, this was obviously nonsense (all he had to do was look at the budget — even then there was much more money coming into the school from research than from undergrad tuition). Sadly, even a lot of “grownups” in academia seem to have judgment that is no better, but I doubt that the trustees of Harvard will do anything that will hurt their kids’ (and grandkids’) chances of getting in.

  6. “To me, this article’s author seems completely unaware of these vast swathes of our culture. He’s trapped in that Harvard belief that Harvard is the center of everybody’s universe. ”

    I think you summed up why the article bothered me. I couldn’t really put a finger on it.

    As a side note, of course Harvard has a lot of attached prestige. Even if there is rampant grade inflation, it’s still a name brand. People who go there are essentially buying into that name brand and what it can get them, as opposed to the “superior” education. A friend of mine was trying to decide between Harvard Law and Columbia Law, having received a full scholarship offer to the latter. She asked me for my advice, and I urged her to go to Harvard. My reasoning was that Harvard’s name alone would get her foot into almost any door she chose. Nothing against Columbia, of course. But it’s no Harvard in terms of prestige.

    …And if she ends up regretting her choice, I just hope she doesn’t blame me. 😀

  7. The fascination with bans and prohibitions is an ugly trend. A child who is locked into a terrible district so his parents send him to parochial school should be excluded? Like Chief Wiggems says ‘That’s some real good thinking there, Lou’

  8. I resent the attitude that affluent parents have some sort of noblesse oblige to sacrifice their own children’s education in the slim hopes that they will beat the odds and actually be able to bring about a meaningful improvement in government-run schools. Last week it was Sandra Tsing Loh in the NYT; today it’s this Crimson article.

    Let’s level the playing field by giving low-to-moderate income families the same freedom to flee mediocre government-run schools than wealthier ones do.

    The experience in Sweden has shown that the competition from a widespread voucher program actually spurs government-run schools to improve student achievement.

  9. Andy Freeman says:

    I predict that this will turn into an attempt to ban homeschooled kids.

  10. Andy- Except that homeschool graduates currently make up less than 1% of the Harvard freshman class. Private school graduates, however, comprised 35% of those admitted in 2007. So from a numerical standpoint, many more slots would be opened up to graduates of government-run schools by banning graduates of private schools than by banning homeschoolers.

    Given the likely alumni outrage and resulting impact on donations to Harvard, I don’t foresee the university ever adopting such a policy. I know my husband (who attended parochial schools from K-12) would stop donating if Harvard instituted a blanket ban on private school graduates.

  11. “A friend of mine was trying to decide between Harvard Law and Columbia Law, having received a full scholarship offer to the latter. She asked me for my advice, and I urged her to go to Harvard. My reasoning was that Harvard’s name alone would get her foot into almost any door she chose. Nothing against Columbia, of course. But it’s no Harvard in terms of prestige.”

    Hey, “Me,” are you a lawyer? Because as far as I know, yes, actually, yes it is. Unlike undergrad, the prestige of the handful of law schools at the top of the top tier (Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Columbia, NYU, Chicago, UC Berkeley, Virginia) are essentially a wash. And if someone actually wants to practice in NYC, Columbia and NYU both carry as much cache as Harvard or Yale, but have the advantage of providing the city’s legal community for clerkships during the year as well as the summer.

  12. “Hey, “Me,” are you a lawyer? Because as far as I know, yes, actually, yes it is. ”

    No, it’s not. And no, I’m not saying that Columbia sucks or is a bad school. But Harvard is Harvard (well, okay, there is the HYP triumvirate, but aside from that…). Yes, I’ll concede that NYC law schools have a certain cache in the city, but considering that my friend isn’t a fan of the Big Apple, it’s a moot point.

  13. And for the record, I know that Columbia *is* an excellent school, but it’s not AS much of a name brand as Harvard. Obviously the difference is more pronounced at the undergraduate level, but it’s still there. Take out any geographic/alumni loyalty, put the two schools side by side, and ask which one is “better” (I put that in quotes because I think it’s largely a matter of perception).

    I am not a lawyer but do work for a law firm and while the people there will certainly be impressed with Columbia, they’ll practically swoon over Harvard. Okay, not literally, but you get the idea.

  14. Andy Freeman says:

    > Andy- Except that homeschool graduates currently make up less than 1% of the Harvard freshman class.

    You misunderstand the goal. It isn’t really to open up more opportunities to the under privileged. It’s to “support” public education.

    Private schools aren’t much of a threat to public education because the myth that they get more money is well established. (Since public school advocates equate money with success….) Home-schoolers, on the other hand, show that random schlubs can do what the experts in public schools can’t do, and they do it with far less money.

    Moreover, an interesting fraction of parents are home-schooling because they think that doing so gives their kid a leg-up getting into Harvard, et al. Since they’re all conservatives anyway, this must be slapped down hard.

  15. “Home-schoolers… show that random schlubs can do what the experts in public schools can’t do, and they do it with far less money.”

    HEY! I’m almost offended at that random schlubs remark… except that you’re basically right.
    🙂

  16. “I resent the attitude that affluent parents have some sort of noblesse oblige to sacrifice their own children’s education in the slim hopes that they will beat the odds and actually be able to bring about a meaningful improvement in government-run schools.”

    And choosing between private education and a shot at Harvard represents a major sacrifice of some kind?

  17. Andy Freeman says:

    > I resent the attitude that affluent parents have some sort of noblesse oblige to sacrifice their own children’s education in the slim hopes that they will beat the odds and actually be able to bring about a meaningful improvement in government-run schools.

    Actually, the vast majority of the truly affluent already live in areas where the public schools are very good.

    Apart from the Choate/Andover folk, the private school affluent are the “low class” rich. These people are already hated because they didn’t know their place. Also, the truly affluent have better things to do, so the crappy state of public education is clearly due to the failings of the low-class rich. Punishing their kids is clearly justified.

  18. M/M wrote: “And choosing between private education and a shot at Harvard represents a major sacrifice of some kind?”

    Sending my child to a lousy government-run school for ideological reasons when I am in a position to provide him/her with a much better education elsewhere *IS* sacrificing my child’s best interests. Harvard has nothing to do with it. I simply refuse to be guilt-tripped into putting my child into an inferior school because Ms. Loh and Mr. Rakich naively believe that my doing so would actually result in a “world of difference” for government-run education.

    Yes, it’s unfair that I have the freedom to vote with my feet when so many other parents don’t. That’s why I support vouchers for low-to-moderate income families. That would help level the playing field without requiring me to sacrifice my child’s well-being.

  19. CW:

    Personally I don’t know that my kids would be terribly enriched by the presence of your kids. So I would say keep on spending your bucks and getting a more exclusive deal. But whining if Harvard or any other prestigious organization you aspire to decides to take a more populist approach, well, I just say, get over it. You can’t always get everything you want.

  20. Larry, San Francisco says:

    So we should punish people for trying to help their kids. Great idea. Imagine if many Ivy league schools adopted this policy. I am pretty sure the main effect would be even fewer children in San Francisco, Chicago, and LA and large increases in the prices of homes in Palo Alto and the North Shore school districts.

    Harvard has an endowment worth zillions (or maybe mega zillions). If students at Harvard were really concerned about poor but talented children that don’t have a chance why don’t lobby Harvard to establish Harvard leadership schools in urban areas which will allow the good poor students to receive a first rate education and allow them to be good students at Harvard (or other schools).

    I am sorry, I guess it is better to tear down people who are trying rather than actually doing something to improve the people left behind.

  21. “I am sorry, I guess it is better to tear down people who are trying rather than actually doing something to improve the people left behind.”

    Although, Larry, there are some who take a broader view and decide to stand and fight for the greater good rather than provide an escape for their own children. But it’s not only those who leave for private schools who contribute to the status quo. It is also systemic in most states where a majority of students are educated in urban districts who face multiple challenges, but a smaller number are pooled into the suburbs with fewer challenges and families with greater support systems and social capital.

    I don’t think it will make a lot of difference which way Harvard goes on this (and is it a serious possibility?)–the few who set out at kindergarten to get their kids into Harvard will either engineer it carefully through public channels or make other choices. But the level of passion that attaches to the discussion is interesting.

  22. Andy Freeman says:

    Note that the public school advocates are conceeding that they don’t know how to make public schools work.

    If they can’t make public schools work without the presence of these private school kids, perhaps those kids should be paid.

    What? They don’t want to pay for something that they claim will improve education?

  23. But why is it not the greater good to provide routes for ALL children to escape from mediocre government-run schools? The status quo exists in a large part because of the monopoly government-run schools have over the majority of children. If the funding for education followed the child and all families (not just affluent ones) were allowed the freedom to choose where to send their children, then the competition would spur schools to improve. This is what’s actually happened in Sweden.

  24. CW:

    There is an assumption of privately run schools being categorically better than public schools. In this country, the best that can be said is that the jury is still out on the long-term effects of either vouchers or charter schools. Typically advantages fade when demographics are figured in. Not to say that demographics are destiny, but that neither the public nor the private (American) sector has been terribly successful in countering SES. And the range of absolute success/failure is very wide.

    There are in fact an astonishing number of models for the delivery of “public” education when looking on an international scale. Many countries do provide public support to what we would view as “private” education. In parts of the world this includes public support of parochial schools (Ontario, for one close to home example). Hong Kong has essentially built/expanded its public system through purchase of services from existing private schools. Finland, on the other hand is a stellar example of a “government run monopoly.”

    I think that what we have to conclude from the existing research is that this is yet another example of “no magic bullet.” Or, as I prefer to view it–neither the funding mechanism, nor the means of governance are critical factors in determining the success or failure of a school system. We also have the further issue of capacity (which is the issue that Hong Kong was faced with when secondary education became a universal guarantee). We do not now have the capacity in the private/charter realm to save the current generation of youngsters enrolled in public schools (even if all were considered to be an improvement–which we know is not the case) by transfer. In witnessing the opening of new charters, the learning curve is steep and the failure rate high. The development of sporadic pockets of excellence–even within large urban districts–has never been our problem. The problem is our inability to “ramp up.”

    So, sure, we could tie all public funding to the child and let them go wherever their parents can drive them to. We could accept that schools, like restaurants, will be opening and closing annually with only a few to survive long-term. But, I would suggest that, in the end, the best we can hope for is a few local gems like Mom’s Home Cooked Diner, a lot of McDonalds, some Bob Evans and Denny’s and the occasional five-star restaurant, which will remain the realm of the wealthy.

  25. If SES is all that matters, then why do this country’s Catholic schools have such an excellent track record in educating poor, minority students? Most studies comparing private and public schools that claim similar outcomes once demographics are factored in *SPECIFICALLY EXCLUDE* Catholic schools from consideration because of the well-known “Catholic effect”. The researchers are basically stacking the deck to get the results they want by deliberately excluding schools they know to be successful at educating disadvantaged kids.

  26. I don’t know too many researchers who are able to get their work published by stacking the deck. But I would certainly be interested in any peer reviewed studies of “the Catholic effect.” But in any comparative study it is important to be certain that the comparison is apples to apples. Selection bias is always an issue–not only when schools have selection criteria (frequently the case in private schools–even Catholic ones), but also the bias in favor of parents who are willing to consider making a move. Some of the best studies have looked at those who applied and got in compared to those who applied and didn’t make it. As we have some voucher systems (Cleveland and Milwaukee) that have been in place a few years, it is beginning to be possible to look at whether there are different apples to apples outcomes. But I have just not seen any strong indication of big differences. The world outside of public schools is a very mixed bag (as is the world within). I can personally name a handful of public schools who do a very good job of educating low-income minority youth. I can do the same for charter schools, and while I am less conversant with the world of private schools, I know that it would possible to do so there. This does NOT add up to any of these sectors, across the board, doing well with that, or any other, population. By the same token, in each of these sectors, there are schools who are doing a criminally poor job of educating low income minority youth.

    I can say that I have enjoyed some renewed attention to the needs of my children since charter schools came to our neighborhood. I have kept them on my radar screen as a possibility and I have one child who attended a very good charter school. But I cannot say that I expect wholesale reform of public education as a result. It just hasn’t happened.

    But, SES is certainly not all that matters. In fact, by comparison to other countries, in this country it matters too much.

  27. “So, sure, we could tie all public funding to the child and let them go wherever their parents can drive them to. We could accept that schools, like restaurants, will be opening and closing annually with only a few to survive long-term”

    Why shouldn’t the money follow the child, if in fact “it’s what’s in the child’s best interests the matters?”

    As for schools opening and closing etc., any evidence to support that? Anything to indicate that good schools wouldn’t stay open and prosper?