Buying Access to Ivy—A Way to Revive Harvard

Of the many, many articles written on Harvard University’s endowment woes, I have yet to read one actually sympathetic with Harvard. Perhaps this reflects our gleeful voyeurism when the high-and-mighty fall, or sense of justice that the reckless should pay for their recklessness, or belief that no university truly needs or deserves such a large nest egg, or perhaps the reality that, even after this precipitous fall, Harvard still retains the largest endowment in the solar system. But the impact on the Harvard operating budget and its people is substantial. Harvard’s loss, after all, exceeded the total endowment of all but a half-dozen American institutions, and recovery could take a generation or more to reach its previous peak.

But I have a solution for Harvard University to quickly restore the endowment. Harvard can re-establish its total principal in just two years: simply by selling seats to prospective freshmen. Let’s say that for $10 million each, 600 18-year-olds could gain automatic admission to the world’s most renowned institution. Their parents would ante up their wealth before admissions—so these freshmen might never know if they otherwise would have been accepted. The only admissions stipulations would be the ability to communicate in English and the absence of any criminal record. Over a two-year period, Harvard could recoup the $12 billion lost to mismanagement and recession. Harvard should also promise not to let another secretary of the treasury handle this now-restored endowment.

There would, of course, be universal outrage and ridicule, some lawsuits, and perhaps even a few government hearings and investigations into Harvard’s non-profit status. But that publicity alone should alert the world to this opportunity. Given the Harvard brand, or what would be left of it, there should be little difficulty filling this quota.

To mitigate the PR fallout, Harvard could announce that much of this money would fund scholarships for those who did not submit this $10 million application fee. Harvard could rationalize its actions by claiming to be selling admissions not degrees—in fact, the Harvard faculty, to prove a point, would be even more prone to inflict academic rigor on these undergraduates.

The world of public opinion might still come reigning down on Harvard for this self-serving solution. The more cynical would question why this is even newsworthy. Affluent parents, after all, invest in their children’s advantage from nursery schools through high school, buying extra test time by certifying bogus learning disorders, giving strategic donations and gifts, contriving exotic experiences to pad their children’s applications, and hiring counselors to help with college essays and interviews. Cynics will argue that for years Harvard has been for sale, at a much lower price, for that 10% of its freshman class admitted because of their family’s connections. This simply closes the connection between financial gifts and access, recalibrates the market value of the Harvard degree, and opens up access to a wider share of the upper class—now without the government subsidy of a tax-deduction and at a much higher return to Harvard.

Perhaps some would even awaken to appreciate what a fragile treasure an institution like Harvard is. Once Harvard weathered the barrage of indignation from alumni, faculty, academics who suffer from Harvard envy, and opinion-makers across the globe who would relish yet another opportunity to blast this bastion of elitism, Harvard could embark on one of the most interesting social experiments ever. If Harvard admitted a third of its freshman class based solely on the ability of parents to pay $10 million, and protected their ongoing anonymity, it would be fascinating to see whether the non-meritorious would succeed, or not, in their academic careers and beyond—and just how much the Harvard experience and imprimatur are worth.

The immediate internal dynamics would be intriguing to observe. Would faculty be able to discern, without frequent and embarrassing mistaken identity, which students bought their way into Harvard? Would parents choose to tell their children that they paid $10 million to ensure their admission? Would those students who methodically built a resumé of youthful accomplishments ostracize those who chose this lazy shortcut into Harvard? Would some of those admitted the old-fashioned way secretly suspect their parents of paying up front—just in case? Would all freshmen be eternally second-guessed by insiders and outsiders because some did not earn their way into the class, or would the Harvard halo extend to the entire group?

This longitudinal study could start with academic performance at Harvard and continue throughout graduate and professional schools and into careers. Do Harvard students succeed at subsequent stages of their lives because of who they are—or because of the educational value and prestige of the institution? Is it their pre-established nature or their institution’s nurturing that deserves the credit for their accomplishments? Would the current 97% graduation rate decline? Would the tainted one-third have the same earning power, similar levels of achievement, and comparable happiness in their lives? Their parents, after all, would have wagered that the Harvard Advantage is worth at least $10 million. This would test the wisdom of their investment.

After two years of prostituting its admissions process, Harvard University could return to its more meritorious ways (though a suspicious public might then doubt if this practice had actually ceased)—now far wiser in Harvard’s actual influence on students, and the strength or fragility of its reputation.

Jay A. Halfond is dean of Metropolitan College and Extended Education at Boston University.

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