Harvard’s SAT Exceptionalism

We all know that Harvard can do whatever it wants and usually does. And what it does usually sets the course for the rest of the country’s colleges and universities (at least in the sense of giving them something to think about…) But this recent comment in the Boston Globe really has me steaming:

Harvard’s dean of admissions, Bill Fitzsimmons, said standardized tests that are based on high school course work have proven superior to the SAT at determining college readiness and said he hoped such tests will begin to play a larger role in admissions decisions.
“Wouldn’t it be better for students to study chemistry and math and language, than trying to game a somewhat esoteric set of test-taking skills?” he asked.
Yet Harvard “could never be SAT-optional,” he said, because of the need for a national measure to identify top students, including those from urban or rural high schools that don’t send many students to elite colleges.

Mr. Fitzsimmons recently chaired a committee that explored the use of standardized testing in college admission. It recommended that the SAT be de-emphasized in admission decisions for all the reasons that many of us have been giving for many years. Clearly, however, this recommendation is meant to apply only to lesser institutions, and not Harvard itself. Harvard couldn’t possibly do what the plebes do because it needs to have a “national measure” to identify top students, unlike everyone else, who presumably only need, what, “local” measures? Or other more scurrilous ways of evaluating applications?

This smug exceptionalism not only throws the committee’s study and recommendations into doubt (were you just wasting everyone’s time?) it also reeks of a “Let them eat cake” mentality that makes us common folk want to grab our pitchforks and settle someone’s hash. Why can de-emphasizing the SAT work for everyone else but not possibly for Harvard? Surely with its 372 years of experience it knows how to identify a talented student by now without a test that has only been in existence for 80 years or so. And surely, if it’s good enough for Harvard, why should anyone else give it up, despite the fact that many colleges and universities have, without any diminution in their ability to attract and identify able applicants.

Fitzsimmons connects using the SAT with the necessity of finding “urban or rural” students who might otherwise, presumably, be overlooked without it. But this is just protective coloring, meant to reassure us that Harvard needs the scores to find talented first generation and minority students it would otherwise miss. But most of those students won’t do well on the SAT, so Harvard would either have to reject them or ignore the scores. And Harvard has the resources to find anyone it wants, so why rely on the scores when it’s just finished downplaying them?

So the message and value of the study become muddied and pointless. Whatever we may think about America’s top university “brand,” we must acknowledge that Harvard’s imprimatur on anything carries great weight. Without Harvard’s taking the lead by adopting a more enlightened view of admission testing (even if it stops short of de-emphasizing it), what was the point of doing the study in the first place? Of course, it’s not bound to follow through on any conclusions, but wouldn’t its participation suggest it was willing to lead where those conclusions might point? To say categorically that it couldn’t possibly risk its reputation by de-emphasizing scores, even though that was the conclusion of the study seems arrogant at best, cynical and unilateral at worst.

If Harvard wants to avoid being the Marie Antoinette of colleges and universities, perhaps it should get out with the people a little instead of simply visiting its faux village to commune with the peasants. It might experiment with how it uses the SAT by making decisions on a sampling of students without using scores and following them through over the years. With the immense resources at its disposal, Harvard could actually perform a service rather than retreat into its opulence. Leadership on this issue would be to take the study’s conclusions seriously, as if they applied to ALL institutions and not just everyone else.

One interesting irony of this situation is that the SAT was once touted specifically as a way to find otherwise hidden talents throughout the country when many colleges had narrowly specific entrance exams of their own. It was conceived of as a great leveller. But with the increasing connection of test performance with income, this seems no longer defensible; now it’s as much a barrier to admission as a way into college. The idea of the SAT’s being a “national standard” that is somehow equal across the country has been definitvely refuted over and over again. And being able to find talented students in out of the way places has never been easier. So what’s Harvard’s excuse? Apres moi, le deluge


About Will Dix

I am currently writing a book about college admission. I'm interested in the intersection of the college process and American culture. I attended Amherst College in the 1970s, taught high school English and theater at The Hill School in the '80s, returned to Amherst in the '90s as an admission dean, and began the '00s as a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. I then joined Chicago Scholars as Program Director. Currently, I blog about college admission for Forbes.com. I also help community organizations serving low income students understand the college admission process so more students can consider gaining access to higher education. I have a few private college counseling clients that I take by referral only. The views expressed in this blog are mine alone.
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