Sunday, December 27, 2009

Thoughts from Harvard's Dean of Admissions -- William Fitzsimmons

Underlying the many questions we receive each year about finding the “right” schooling to prepare for college are two themes:

1. Do colleges prefer some types of high schools over others and thereby offer an admissions advantage to students from such schools?

2. Are there certain kinds of schools that provide exactly the right preparation for college?

The first question is easy to answer: No. We admit students and not schools, and there is no admissions advantage for attending any particular type of school. There are thousands of secondary schools in the United States, and one of our greatest assets is their astonishing diversity. Of course, some students are home-schooled, and there are others who have experienced several different kinds of schooling.

We are vitally interested in whether or not applicants have taken full advantage of their educational opportunities, whatever they might have been. If so, they have a much better chance of maximizing the use of Harvard’s resources.

Harvard’s recruiting has increased exponentially over recent decades, part of a larger pattern of outreach by American colleges and universities. As we have traveled around the nation and reached out to students from every imaginable kind of secondary school — urban, suburban, rural, large and small — more students than ever before have come from schools that have never sent anyone to Harvard. It is exciting to “open up” new schools, and their students add a dimension that greatly enriches Harvard.

In previous generations, private secondary schools supplied the overwhelming majority of the students at Harvard and its peers. This September, public schools provided almost 70 percent of the students entering Harvard, and even that percentage is misleading with respect to the economic diversity of today’s Harvard.

Similar to private colleges, private secondary schools have raised substantial funding for financial aid and have recruited aggressively to ensure that they reach out to talented students from every economic background. Today’s private school students are very different from the stereotypes of the past. In fact, many private schools have considerably more economic heterogeneity than some of the public schools in their own areas due to the stark economic segregation in many communities reflected in high real estate prices.

There are many excellent public and private schools, and both types of schools vary in quality. This leads to the second major question about whether certain kinds of schools provide exactly the right preparation for college.

The key element in finding the right kind of primary and secondary schooling centers on the fundamental issue of the match between the student and the school—the same issue we stress when it comes to college choice. Especially because children develop at very different rates from one another, the worst thing to do is to use a “one size fits all” solution. Even for the same child, a high-powered school might be a poor fit in the early years, yet just right later.

Outstanding students at any stage—pre-school through graduate school—tend to cluster at certain schools for all kinds of reasons, including the past history of the schools, their missions, resources, and various socioeconomic factors including financial aid availability.

When a secondary school sends large numbers of students to top colleges, is it because of the quality of the education it provides or is it because of the students it attracted in the first place? The same question could be asked about Harvard. This “chicken and egg” issue will never be settled, but it is important for families to know that Harvard and all of higher education are now reaching out to talented students everywhere.

Parents often sacrifice a great deal financially and in other ways to send their children to private schools, or endure complicated transportation logistics to access magnet public schools. Some spend large percentages of the family budget to live in an area with a strong reputation for its public schools.

It is always difficult to measure the educational benefits of such actions. Some parents are pleased with the results, while others are less certain. Ultimately, it is what students themselves do to develop their talents at each stage of their lives—whatever the resources might be in their communities and in their schools—that matters most. The American dream can be attained through many routes—and through any kind of schooling.