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In Year of Crisis, Harvard Admissions Has Resilient Showing

Harvard Yard is the oldest and most historic part of Harvard University. Harvard emerged mostly unscathed from its first application cycle since the fall of affirmative action.
Harvard Yard is the oldest and most historic part of Harvard University. Harvard emerged mostly unscathed from its first application cycle since the fall of affirmative action. By Marina Qu
By Elyse C. Goncalves and Matan H. Josephy, Crimson Staff Writers

Harvard emerged mostly unscathed from its first application cycle since the fall of affirmative action, silencing critics who speculated the University’s recent controversies would deter students from applying to the College.

Instead, the College received 54,008 applications for the Class of 2028, marking the fourth year in a row more than 50,000 prospective students applied for admission. While the total for the Class of 2028 was a 5.14 percent decrease from the year before, the figures are in line with past trends.

After applications to Harvard peaked with the Class of 2026, the number of students applying to the College has declined steadily. The Class of 2027 witnessed a drop in applications of approximately 7 percent from the previous year.

When the College reported in December a 17 percent decline in early applications, people who criticized Harvard’s handling of the Oct. 7 attack on Israel quickly claimed that the drop was related to the University’s ongoing controversies — despite Claudine Gay’s controversial congressional testimony taking place over a month after the early action application deadline.

Harvard donor Bill A. Ackman ’88 — a billionaire investor and vocal critic of former President Claudine Gay — wrote on X in December that “it takes 400 years to build a reputation and only a few months to destroy it.”

But five hours after Harvard announced its decisions for the regular admission cycle, Ackman’s X account was dormant and the University’s critics were generally silent about the admissions data.

While Harvard generally had a strong showing on Thursday, it did still experience an uptick in its admission rate while a number of peer institutions like Yale and Dartmouth reported record-low admission rates.

“You never know from one year to another why applications, precisely why applications go up or why they go down,” William R. Fitzsimmons ’67, Harvard’s dean of admissions and financial aid, said in a Thursday interview. “It’s meaningful to look over a three to five year period. And that’s what you should pay attention to.”

Still, the fact that many peer schools witnessed increases in applications while Harvard’s continued to fall indicated that the events of last semester could have had a small impact on the number of applicants. Is it also not yet clear that the Supreme Court’s ruling on race-conscious admission practices had an impact on applications to Harvard.

In an interview with The Crimson earlier this week, Dan Lee, founder of Solomon Admissions Counseling, explained interest in Harvard has remained high throughout the admissions cycle.

“We actually have not gotten a lot of questions regarding affirmative action. I think most clients still understand that it’s a very competitive landscape,” Lee said.

“In terms of interest in Harvard, it’s always been high so I don't think that’s really changed this year,” he added.

The socioeconomic data for the Class of 2028 also eased concerns regarding the demographic makeup of Harvard’s incoming class. Just less than 21 percent of accepted students are Pell Grant-eligible, a number consistent with figures provided by the College for recently accepted classes.

The stable representation of students eligible for Pell Grants may indicate that Harvard was successful at recruiting and admitting low-income students — who disproportionately represent minority racial and ethnic groups — as a means of fostering a diverse class without the use of race-conscious admissions practices.

In a bid to expand its recruitment of rural students – many of whom tend to be low-income and come from communities with lower rates of college enrollment – Harvard also joined the Small Town Outreach, Recruitment, and Yield consortium. STORY is a group of colleges and universities that work to expand their recruitment efforts towards students from rural areas.

Harvard’s joining of STORY may indicate the shifting priorities of the admissions office in the wake of the University’s loss at the Supreme Court. Now that Harvard can no longer make use of race-conscious admissions practices, it is increasingly shifting its focus toward the recruitment of low-income students.

Whether that effort has ultimately succeeded, however, will remain unknown for several more weeks. Harvard will only release data on the racial composition of its admitted class later into the summer.

For legal reasons, the College said it must wait at least until after the May 1 deadline for students admitted to the Class of 2028 to accept or reject their offers, in order to comply with the requirement that Harvard does not look at race data in its admissions process.

The results of that demographic release will provide the most insight into whether Harvard will be able to successfully maintain the racial diversity of its accepted classes without the explicit consideration of race.

But Harvard might find itself in a lose-lose scenario no matter what the data shows about the Class of 2028’s racial and ethnic composition.

Should the proportion of underrepresented minority groups within the Class of 2028 drop substantially compared to results from past years — an outcome that some experts have predicted — it would indicate that the University is complying with the Supreme Court’s ruling.

Models produced by experts hired by Harvard and Students for Fair Admissions, the anti-affirmative action group that sued the University, show that such drops would have been likely in past classes had Harvard admitted them without the consideration of race.

The result would also serve as a failing grade for the University’s new recruitment practices, showing that even efforts to bring in low-income applicants could not supplement the affirmative action policies of the past.

But if the University’s demographic release indicates that the Class of 2028’s racial composition remains consistent with past admitted classes, it would signal a victory for Harvard’s recruitment and admissions reforms following the Supreme Court decision.

It would also, however, invite heightened scrutiny from groups opposed to affirmative action, including Students for Fair Admissions. Harvard might face additional litigation if anti-affirmative action organizations have any reason to believe the University is not complying with the law.

As the present admissions cycle comes to a close, experts, admissions officers, and applicants will wait for the release of demographic data for the Class of 2028. But, for now, Harvard has successfully weathered a challenging first application cycle post-affirmative action.

—Staff writer Elyse C. Goncalves can be reached at elyse.goncalves@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @e1ysegoncalves or on Threads @elyse.goncalves.

—Staff writer Matan H. Josephy can be reached matan.josephy@thecrimson.com. Follow him on X @matanjosephy.

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