What exactly does it take to be admitted to a top college? It’s a secret, according to Harvard.
The past couple of weeks have offered an unprecedented look into the way Harvard University evaluates applicants. The details came to light during a lawsuit alleging that the school has discriminated against Asian-Americans hoping for a spot at the school — a claim Harvard vehemently denies. Though the suit has certainly pulled back the curtain on the Harvard admissions process, many details still remain under wraps. Harvard is hoping to keep it that way.
As part of the suit, the school filed a brief late last week arguing that certain documents produced as part of the case — including internal training materials and preliminary snapshots of the school’s admitted class during specific periods of the application cycle — should remain under seal.
The brief is part of a larger request to keep certain documents, like individual applicant files or correspondence with alumni, under seal so as not to violate the privacy of people communicating with or submitting their information to Harvard. “Harvard is deeply committed to protecting the extensive personal information applicants entrust to us in the admissions process,” a Harvard spokesperson said in a statement regarding last week’s brief.
But it’s also one of multiple instances throughout the case where the school has argued that the way it selects its incoming classes is tantamount to a trade secret. Harvard officials say keeping the “narrow category of documents” under seal is necessary to protect both student privacy and the integrity of its admissions process.
Releasing the training documents would disadvantage Harvard “in the extremely competitive market to recruit, admit, and enroll the most outstanding students across the world,” the school’s lawyers wrote in the brief.
“It is not difficult to imagine how Harvard’s competitors might try to utilize information about Harvard’s yield rates, or the number of students Harvard seeks to admit from certain geographic territories, to their advantage and to Harvard’s detriment,” they added.
In the brief, Harvard’s lawyers note that that argument is one typically made by businesses. Harvard isn’t the first elite college to present this argument to the court. Other schools have used a similar line of reasoning to prevent the release of documents.
This justification to keep its admissions processes private reveals something not just about Harvard, but about the state of selective admissions more generally — even if the school manages to keep the documents themselves under seal. In some ways, the process for creating a class of the best and brightest high school students is equivalent to developing a proprietary algorithm or set of customer data.
Colleges look for students with something extra
“Colleges are looking for a student who, yes, is bright” and has a resume full of traditional accomplishments, like leading the student government or an athletic team, said Mimi Doe, the co-founder of College Admissions Consultants, an independent college counseling service. “But they’re also looking for a student who can add that special sauce to a campus.”
So what is that something special? It depends on the school and even the year in which a student is applying, experts say. Colleges are evaluating students individually based on a set of priorities often developed by top-level administrators, said Anna Ivey, a college and law school admissions consultant and former dean of admissions at University of Chicago’s law school.
But admissions officers aren’t just looking at applicants as individuals, they’re also evaluating them as part of the class they’re trying to shape, Ivey said.
In many cases, colleges hope to create classes that are diverse on a variety of different levels, including, yes, race, but also geography, academic interests, economic background and more, Ivey said. For example, three college admissions experts interviewed for this article each noted that something as seemingly distant as changes in the lineup of the school’s orchestra can affect the priorities of the admissions office.
“As the admissions officer you might get word that the orchestra really needs to fill that trombonist spot,” Ivey said.
As part of the lawsuit, Harvard has already provided a look into its system to evaluate applicants. For example, the admissions officers typically rate applicants on a scale of one to four in four categories — academic, extracurricular, athletic and personal — and also provide an overall rating.
The court documents indicate that a variety of other factors can also tip the scale. Legacy applicants, or students with a parent who attended Harvard, were accepted to the school at the rate of about 34%, according to data from six admissions cycles analyzed by an economist hired by the group suing the school. That’s compared to an admissions rate of about 6% of non-legacy students, according to an analysis of Harvard data.
College admissions processes are like trade secrets
“The way a particular college might evaluate an application would be fairly proprietary,” said Ivey.
It’s hard to say whether that idea will hold up in court. Harvard is relying on arguments that are similar (though not exactly the same) to those companies use to protect a trade secret, said Jeanne Fromer, a professor at New York University’s School of Law and an intellectual property expert.
But the school is using that justification to protect something more amorphous than engineering information or a customer list. It’s a relatively new line of argument that’s being used more frequently, Fromer said.
She cited a recent lawsuit filed by IBM IBM, +1.33% against its former chief diversity officer after she left for Microsoft MSFT, +0.72% . IBM, which settled the suit earlier this year, had argued that the data and strategy it used for achieving diversity were trade secrets.
Though it’s hard to predict whether Harvard’s argument will prove successful, Fromer said, the organization is signaling that they find the information valuable because they’re willing to invest money to keep it secret.
That can be a difficult pill to swallow for students seeking spots at colleges like Harvard. “It puts you in a position where you feel like you’re playing a game where you don’t know the rules,” said Jim Jump, the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, Va. and the former president of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling. “That’s hard.”
Publicly available information about admissions
Of course, there is some publicly available information about what’s required to get into a top college, such as average standardized test scores and grade-point averages. But meeting that criteria will only get students in the door, Doe said. Harvard could admit several classes worth of students with essentially perfect academic credentials. Of the roughly 26,000 domestic applications Harvard received for the class of 2019, 3,500 had perfect SAT math scores, 2,700 had perfect SAT verbal scores, more than 8,000 had a perfect GPA and nearly 1,000 received a perfect composite score on the SAT or ACT, according to court documents. The incoming class had about 1,600 spots.
In the brief filed last week, Harvard’s lawyers argued that keeping the training documents under seal would prevent “applicants from attempting to ‘game the system’ by modifying their conduct or their applications to conform to what they believe Harvard wants from them.” They also argue that releasing the training documents would provide a boon to independent college counselors, which Harvard says is a $400 million industry, who could use information to help the clients that can afford to hire them get into Harvard.
But well-connected students and families are already using information about college admissions that they get through their networks, experience and, yes, private college counselors, to their advantage, Ivey said.
MorraLee Keller, the director of technical assistance for the National College Access Network, an organization that works to increase access to college, said in an email that “full disclosure for many competitive colleges has never been the case.” That’s part of the reason why her group encourages students to apply to some “safety” schools, where they know they will get in, in addition to competitive schools where the outcome may be less clear, she added.
“Given this very uneven distribution of background information on how the admissions process works, the optics are not great for a school like Harvard to seem to be suggesting that this is all information that students shouldn’t have,” Ivey said. It “empowers the applicant” to have more information about how to be competitive at a top college, she added.
Because they’re nonprofit institutions, colleges do owe the public a certain amount of transparency, said Faith Sandler, the executive director of the Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis, which works with low-income students applying to college.
But she worries that publishing granular information about admissions criteria would open top colleges up to legal challenges. Those challenges could come from students who believe they earned a spot at the school by, for example, achieving a certain test score thanks to the help of expensive test prep, and not necessarily from families who have been historically underrepresented at top colleges, she said.
It’s likely that “publishing in some detail their process or criteria will cause folks to litigate to hold them accountable to something that can’t be completely objectively measured or proven,” Sandler said.