Where does a scandal like the one that has thrown the nation’s focus onto college admission start? Almost certainly, when families see how nearly impossible it is to get into the world’s most elite schools. This year, only 4.5% of students who applied to Harvard got in, a record low.
Harvard is arguably the top college in the world. The U.S. News college rankings put it second behind Princeton. Business Insider puts it first, and so does The Wall Street Journal. Compensation website PayScale reports that by the middle of their careers, Harvard graduates earn $142,000, among the highest measured.
Harvard is the oldest college in America, founded in 1636. It has the largest endowment at $38 billion. That means it can pay its faculty at levels few other colleges can. It allows Harvard to have a huge research and development budget. The endowment also provides money for scholarships.
The most visible part of Harvard’s appeal is likely its alumni. These include five presidents: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. Recent alumni include Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Vice President Al Gore and Academy Award winner Tommy Lee Jones. There is a presumption, rightly or wrongly, that these people create a vast network that benefits graduating students.
There is also a presumption that Harvard College graduates are more likely to get into the elite graduate schools on campus. These include Harvard Law School, Harvard Medical School and Harvard Business School. The research about this is mixed, but a myth is clearly present.
Fifty people were charged recently in an admissions scandal. Many were famous. Many were top coaches. Bribes were paid, allegedly as high as $6.5 million by one parent. The scandal bridged a period from 2011 to 2019. Colleges allegedly on the list of those targeted include Yale, Stanford and Georgetown. In some cases, the acceptance rate among these schools is below 10%.
Top colleges have gotten harder and harder to get into, as shown by the Harvard admission rate this year of 4.5%.