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Why I’m Skipping My Harvard Reunion (A Call to Action) - Evan Mandery, Huffington post, 6 mai 2014

samedi 10 mai 2014, par Wilde, Oscar

In a few weeks, the Harvard class of 1989 will be reuniting in Cambridge. There’ll be mini-TED talks, a "Taste of New England Dinner," and a chance to sing with the Boston Pops, but I’ll be spending the weekend coaching my son’s Little League team and hanging out with my family.

Reunions seem unnatural to me. I refuse to participate in the charade of pretending to be surprised to see a classmate, and when I’m asked, "What have you been doing ?" as one inevitably is, I never know where to draw the line between "stuff" and the full, self-reflective version one might share with a close friend. I think too much detail implies an exaggerated sense of self-worth and is hence a greater faux pas than too little detail, so I’ve always hewed closer to the "stuff" version, but this runs its own risk of suggesting you don’t think the other person is important enough to merit the full telling of your own story.

It’s a minefield and, in the social media era, one that’s entirely avoidable. I’ve never been unable to locate an old friend or classmate online. It’s particularly easy for graduates of Harvard, which maintains a great alumni website—it’s where Facebook started, after all. Anyone interested in me can find my professional record on LinkedIn, family photos on Facebook, and many hilarious tweets. If one wanted to have a real conversation—as opposed to an exchange of resumes—my address is the third result that comes up when you Google me. I’m a good e-mailer and I like to have lunch.

Curmudgeonly reservations notwithstanding, I’ve happily attended many reunions for the other institutions with which I’ve been meaningfully affiliated : East Meadow High School in Long Island, John Jay College of Criminal Justice (the CUNY college where I’ve taught for the past 14 years), and even the remarkable Brooklyn Technical High School, which my dad attended as a student and later headed as principal. In each instance I’ve gone as an expression of support for the institution’s social mission. Each school, in my view, offers egalitarian access, a nurturing environment, and a ladder to class mobility. I don’t think this is true of my alma mater.

I think Harvard can do a lot better.

Environmental destruction may be the defining failure of our generation, but social inequality can’t be far behind. Anyone who reads the newspaper knows the dispiriting statistics. Since 1980, the share of market income captured by the richest 10 percent of Americans has increased from 30 to 48 percent. The share earned by the richest one percent increased from 8 to 19 percent. The richest .1 percent quadrupled their income share from 2.6 to 10.4 percent. All the while the adult and child poverty rates have stubbornly hovered around 15 and 22 percent respectively.

Unless something changes the situation in America will get worse, not better. Countries with highly concentrated income tend to have less intergenerational class mobility—a relationship that economists often refer to as the "Great Gatsby Curve." According to a recent IMF report, in the U.S. nearly 50 percent of a parent’s economic advantage is passed on to his or her child. By contrast, in the egalitarian Nordic nations of Norway and Denmark the rate is less than 20 percent. In his ubiquitous Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty argues that if our current system remains in place the rich will devour an even greater share of the pie.

A world in which Walmart’s CEO makes 1,034 times more than the company’s average employee is ethically troubling to say the least, but the data should worry even the most committed capitalist. A recent AP survey found that most economists think income inequality hurts the economy. In its January paper, the IMF noted "growing evidence that high income inequality can be detrimental to achieving macroeconomic stability and growth." Joining Barack Obama and Paul Krugman in calling income inequality "the defining challenge of our time," are a cast of tycoons, including Warren Buffett, Ron Unz, Nick Hanauer, Steve Silberstein, and Leo Hindery, Jr. As often as Buffett makes his case in moral terms, he notes the economic harm caused by inequality. It creates what Hanauer, a venture capitalist, colorfully calls a "death spiral of falling demand" which he sees as "the signature feature of our economy."


In the higher education universe, which has its own haves and have-nots, Harvard is the biggest have in human history. It has an endowment of $32 billion, which doesn’t include the value of its land (Harvard owns 200 acres in Cambridge and 300 acres in nearby Allston collectively estimated to be worth about $6 billion), collections (the library system holds 15 million volumes), physical plant, and intellectual property (Harvard has an extremely broad policy under which it claims an interest in all research conducted by faculty members).

It’s the richest university on Earth by a wide margin. The only competitor that’s even close is Yale, which has an endowment of $20 billion. Harvard’s worth about 1.6 times more than Yale, a ratio that makes the distribution of wealth among rich humans look egalitarian. Bill Gates topped the most recent Forbes 500 list with a net worth of $76 billion, about $4 billion more than Mexican business magnate Carlos Slim. That’s a ratio of 1.05-to-one. Only four other universities have endowments that exceed $10 billion—Princeton, Stanford, MIT, and the University of Texas system. Internationally, no one is close. Cambridge and Oxford each have about $4 billion.

Harvard can puff its chest at its rivals, but even number 50 on the list of most endowed universities (Wellesley : $1.55 billion) is rich by any measure. By contrast, among the 24 institutions that comprise the City University of New York, City College boasts the most Nobel Prize winners among its graduates (nine—not too shabby—Harvard has 21) and the largest endowment, a paltry $200 million. Brooklyn College, which counts among its graduates Nobel Prize winner Stanley Cohen, Alan Dershowitz, and my mom and dad, has $66 million. John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where my wife and I teach, has an endowment of—don’t laugh now—$4 million. I’ll spare you opening your calculator. Harvard could buy us out 8,000 times. I’m reminded of the awe-inspiring statistic that the wealthiest 67 people in the world are worth more than the poorest 3.5 billion. It’s almost impossible to imagine any meaningful change happening in higher education without Harvard playing a leading role.

Harvard’s response is that it does its bit, and it’s true that it does offer substantial financial aid to its students, so please let me interrupt my diatribe to give credit where it’s due. Harvard is a private college and has no legal obligation to offer its students any financial aid. As a teacher, I can’t resist evaluating their efforts. The question is what standard to apply. One of the great ironies of modern higher education is that it’s far easier to get an A at Harvard, which has runaway grade inflation, than at a public college like John Jay, where standards haven’t changed. Who knows what mark simply doing something entitles one to at Harvard ? Perhaps an Ivy League professor would give the university a B. I’m not willing to go above a C-minus, but the point here is to acknowledge that it would be unreasonable to give them an F.

Okay, diatribe resumes.

When I attended Harvard the mantra was diversity, which the university began chanting during Freshman Week and repeated incessantly through commencement, like a Danica Patrick Super Bowl commercial. They said diversity so often that even the biggest Harvardphile wanted to vomit. Let’s leave aside the fact that when I was there the student body was six percent black and four percent Hispanic, and provisionally grant Harvard the diversity premise. It’s true that not everyone there was exactly the same.


The elephant in the room is legacy. Harvard, like many colleges, treats children of its own graduates, especially generous donors, differently than the general applicant pool. I think also on the table should be a set of stable expectations that certain elite secondary schools have regarding how many of its students will be accepted to Harvard. One out of 20 members from the class of 2017 came from seven schools : Boston Latin, Phillips Academy in Andover, Phillips Exeter Academy, Stuyvesant High School, Noble and Greenough School, Trinity School in New York City, and Lexington High School. Of these only Stuyvesant, Boston Latin, and Lexington are public. Also on the table should be athletic legacy, which, because of Title IX, has the effect of benefitting upper-class students.

Legacy began after World War I as a way to legitimize the exclusion of Jews and other immigrants from Ivy League colleges, as Richard Kahlenberg explains in his book, Affirmative Action for the Rich : Legacy Preferences in College Admissions. Today it functions largely as a mechanism for suppressing Asian-American enrollment. If you want a picture of what a meritocracy might look like, you need look no further than the New York City specialized high schools which make admissions decisions solely on the basis of the SHSAT, a test that closely resembles the SAT. At Stuyvesant High School, the most competitive in the city, 77 percent of the class is Asian. Lest anyone conclude that these students are somehow economically advantaged, about half qualify for free or discounted lunch.


Enough beating up on rich people : let’s talk about how Harvard beats up on the middle class. My freshman year, Harvard tuition was $11,360. Room and board ran another $4,000. All in, including books, snack money, and tickets home on the Eastern shuttle, which cost $40 one way, my parents were on the hook for about $18,000. To put that into perspective, the median annual U.S. family income was $27,735. Back then a New York City principal made around $63,000 per year. I received a couple of modest scholarships but we received no financial aid. So Harvard cost approximately 60 percent of my parents’ take-home income. They managed by putting a second mortgage on their home and I helped by taking out some student loans. I finished paying off my college and law school debt six months ago. My dad’s still paying off his bit—he’s 70 and working full time.

But my how things have changed. Today Harvard is more expensive. All in, a year at school costs about $65,000—that’s compared to a national median family income of $62,241. So whereas a year of Harvard cost approximately 65% of an average family’s income in 1985, it’s now over 104%. A NYC principal makes around $110,000 today, so a year at Harvard now costs substantially more than a principal takes home in a year.


So what would change things ?

First, end legacy. This may not be a sufficient condition of a moral university, but it’s a necessary one. If we think for a moment about the sort of arguments we might make if we were starting a college from scratch, I could imagine reasonable minds differing over questions such as what would constitute a fair admissions process, where tuition should be set, and how to deal with sensitive issues of race, class, and social inequality. I can’t imagine anyone advancing a serious argument in favor of legacy.

Second, end inquiry into ability to pay. It’s impossible for Harvard and other private colleges to reconcile their self-assigned label of "need blind" with inquiry into whether the candidate intends to seek financial aid (as asked on The Common Application, upon which more than 500 colleges rely) or any other question that might elicit information about the candidate’s ability to pay. In a fair system applications would be blind, as on many final exams, with students identified only be a pre-assigned number. It should go without saying that there also should be a firewall between development and admissions.

Third, recruit better and build pipelines. What’s surpassingly dispiriting about the picture of educational access in the U.S. is that every component of the system is stacked against underprivileged kids ; the biases are mutually reinforcing. At birth, poor and rich kids show no difference in intellectual capacities. Shortly thereafter, substantial achievement gaps become noticeable. The gap continues to widen throughout elementary and secondary school, as rich kids have more enrichment opportunities than poor kids, until students take the SAT, an instrument that legitimizes these opportunity disparities as performance disparities, though it’s itself a biased instrument.

Fourth, restructure tuition and financial aid. I’ll offer three models below. I have my preferences among these, but I’d suggest that any is better than the status quo. I note that they’re not entirely mutually exclusive.
A. Make Harvard Free
Eliminating tuition would create an egalitarian culture and eliminate incentives to select students based on their parents’ ability to pay. Cooper Union was free until 2013. One would be hard pressed to find a more diverse student body or a more loyal alumni base, and its academic reputation is outstanding.

Could Harvard afford this ? It’s difficult to sat how much it costs to run the college, since Harvard faculty teach in different programs, but we can estimate pretty well how much income it would forego. Harvard registers approximately 6,700 undergraduates who pay about $40,000 per year in tuition. That’s gross revenue of $268 million. It has recently given about $166 million per year in financial aid grants. So abandoning tuition would mean sacrificing approximately $102 million per year in net revenue. Presuming that the endowment didn’t generate any interest and that no one ever contributed to it again, Harvard could run the college tuition free for approximately 313 years. If it picked up the tab for room and board the money would last only 135 years, give or take.

The more substantial concern is that by making tuition free, Harvard would be leaving lots of money on the table from people who can afford to pay. "Is it really sensible to try to make college free for the children of hedge fund managers and CEOs ?" asked Kennedy School Professor Christopher Avery when the Crimson floated the idea of free tuition in 2007. Derek Bok echoed the sentiment. "Should we allow the really wealthiest families in America to send their children to Harvard for free ?" he asked. "I think even those families wouldn’t agree with that." In the language of introductory economics Harvard would be failing to extract lots of consumer surplus. But it already leaves gobs of consumer surplus on the table, a point I’ll address presently.
B. Raise Tuition Dramatically
Let’s speak honestly : tuition is an almost meaningless number. Only about 30 percent of Harvard students pay sticker price, as at most private colleges. The meaningful number is the expected family contribution. How that’s calculated has much more impact on families than tuition. Take my family as an example. Our current expected family contribution is $50,000 and we’d receive approximately $10,000 in financial aid. If Harvard doubled tuition, neither our situation nor Harvard’s would change. We’d receive $70,000 in financial aid instead of $10,000, but our out-of-pocket expense would remain $50,000. The optics would change. Harvard would appear to be giving us a lot more financial aid, but this simply exposes gross financial aid as another meaningless figure. The cost to Harvard of educating our child wouldn’t change.

The only people whose situation would change is the very rich, whose out-of-pocket expenses are capped at the tuition rate regardless of ability to pay. According to the net price calculator a family earning $225,000 per year is expected to contribute $60,350 per year—about 26 percent of their gross income. A family earning $2,250,000 per year is expected to contribute $60,350 per year—about 2.6 percent of their gross income. It’s similarly regressive to the social security tax of 6.2 percent on the first $117,000 you earn.

What’s the market price of a Harvard degree ? Reading Dan Golden’s book, it sounds like it’s around $1 million. Since Harvard is effectively selling some degrees anyway, wouldn’t it be better to be explicit about this, charge full freight, and use the additional revenue to admit more poor students or reduce the expected contributions of middle-class families ?
C. However High Tuition Is Set, Loan Students the Money and Means Test Their Ability to Repay
Harvard has recently shifted to giving more financial aid as grants instead of loans. The motive is noble, I think. Students are hardly indifferent between the forms of financial aid. In the example above where Harvard doubled tuition, I said our situation wouldn’t change. This presumed that the financial aid came as a grant and not a loan. Not many parents could in good conscience allow their child to assume $500,000 in debt.

The calculus would be different, though, if Harvard offered meaningful loan forgiveness. Many professional graduate schools follow this model. Stanford Law School’s loan repayment assistance program, generally regarded as the best in the county, forgives the debt of lawyers who work in public service. Tufts recently announced an initiative to repay loans for graduates who choose public service jobs. Program such as these have the potential to shift the career choices that undergraduates make. At Stanford approximately 20 percent of the class of 2010 is working in public service.

Such a model also has the benefit of getting more from people who have the ability to pay. Something seems wrong with a system that gives a free education to a handful of underprivileged students only to train them to become investment bankers and management consultants. Better to educate underprivileged kids to become bankers than rich kids, but I’m not sure why anyone choosing these careers wouldn’t be expected to repay the cost of his or her education. Maybe, Heaven forfend, it would create a disincentive to take this path. Derek Bok once said,"We must also ask ourselves whether it is enough to offer a Harvard education to the brightest applicants without asking how their talents will be used. A Harvard education must serve a larger social purpose if it is to justify our existence and inspirit our students."

I imagine an objection to a borrow-first-pay-back-later-if-you-can-plan would be clarity over how much you’re going to owe. He’s a simple idea : you pay no tuition up front, but pay Harvard one percent of what you make every year for the rest of your life—a secular tithe.

Finally, restructure admissions.

I can only imagine how many blasphemes I’ve uttered to this point, but none I’m sure will be quite so heretical as what I will say last and none would do nearly as much to change the culture of Harvard, higher education, and, dare I say, America. Here it is : make admission random among highly qualified applicants.

Stanford’s admissions dean Richard Shaw estimates that about 80 percent of applicants to Stanford can handle the work. What would we be giving up by shifting the focus in admissions from who deserves a spot at Harvard to who’s capable of doing the work ? Not much. SAT scores have no demonstrable correlation with success in school. What do application essays add in a universe where rich kids can pay someone to write—sorry, edit—their essays ?

And, apologies to alumni interviewers, but social science research is clear that interviews are very poorly predictive of performance. Interviewers look for information that supports their pre-conceived belief about a candidate (the technical term is confirmation bias). Their judgments are shaped by superficial characteristics such as a candidate’s attractiveness, race and gender. One study found that applicant obesity accounted for 35 percent of the variance in hiring decisions. Interviewers tend to be anchored to their first impressions, and rely heavily on intuition, which is notoriously unreliable.

The only quasi-legitimate fear I could imagine Harvard articulating is that if it admitted randomly among students who scored above, say, 2200 on the SAT, is that its average SAT score might marginally go down (it’s currently 2237—remember Harvard admits lots of legacies and athletes who drive the score down). So it might drop in the U.S. News & World Report rankings, although this risk would evaporate if other schools followed suit. The fear would be about going first. I suppose its athletic teams might get worse. It’s hard to take this concern seriously.

The offsetting benefits would be immeasurable. Harvard would get a freshman class that mirrored the race, gender, class and ethnicity of the applicant pool. Legacy would disappear as a special status. Many kids whose parents went to Harvard or taught on the faculty would still get in, but only by virtue of proving themselves qualified to attend the school.
Today, the narrative colleges offer is that students are admitted because they deserve to be admitted. But, as Derek Bok said in his final commencement address in 1991 :

Admiring the ablest students in America is a noble practice, but in today’s society, children from working-class families, from urban ghettos, from country villages, are much too often handicapped by poor schools, by broken homes, by troubled neighborhoods, to fare well in the stiff competition to enter Harvard College. Despite the [millions of] dollars in undergraduate scholarships that we award each year, the fact is that we enroll fewer students from farm communities or blue-collar families than we did 75 or even 100 years ago.

How much more honest and constructive would it be to speak instead of desert of opportunity ? To speak of a Harvard education not as an entitlement, but as a gift of enormous magnitude—an opening of one’s mind to a lifetime of learning—bestowed as an act of grace upon a select few, each of whom is the beneficiary of great luck. For some this luck comes early and often.For me it came in the form of parents who relentlessly advocated for my educational opportunity and insisted that I live my life as if it had no limits. For others, it comes at the moment when the thick admissions envelope arrives in the mail. But everyone who has had the privilege of walking through Harvard Yard and collecting a diploma is lucky beyond words and should have the humility to say so.

How can change happen ? Most importantly people need to start speaking up. Student and alumni pressure matters, as we’ve seen recently in regard to the epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses. Of course, issues of access and equality aren’t just Harvard issues. If your alma mater isn’t doing enough, say so.

More substantially, I’m working with a group of students including Tara Raghuveer, the immediate past president of the Harvard Undergraduate Council, to start a counter-endowment, provisionally titled the Endowment for Equity. This will be a vehicle, similar to the Endowment for Divestiture, for Harvard alumni to contribute to an escrow fund the release of which will be conditioned on Harvard’s ending of legacy preferences, eliminating inquiry into ability to pay, and implementing a meaningful plan to improve class diversity. We hope this will become a model of institutionalized protest that will be emulated at other colleges, and a means for an alumnus or alumna to express support for the nobler purposes of his or her alma mater while also drawing attention to the need for dramatic change.

Like thousands of other Harvard students (and thanks to MOOCs, hundreds of thousands more around the world) I had the privilege to take "Justice" in Sanders Theatre with Professor Michael Sandel. In the language of the course, I cannot say that Harvard or any private college has a duty to admit a more representative class. I advance this only as my vision of the ideal university, in the hopes that others may share it and that, with meaningful progress, I’ll join my classmates at our fiftieth reunion.

I’ll plan a bowling party. Shoes are on me.

À lire intégralement ici sur le site du Huffington post.