Amid Turmoil, Harvard Applications Drop 5%

When is an acceptance rate under 4% a problem? When you're Harvard, and it's trending in the wrong direction.
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Published on April 6, 2024
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  • Applications to Harvard College are down 5% this year, marking the second straight year of declines.
  • The university has been embroiled in controversy stemming from allegations of antisemitism.
  • At many other top colleges, applications increased for this cycle.
  • Harvard's leadership needs to address the university's damaged reputation.

It's a problem many universities would gladly embrace.

For the incoming class of 2028, Harvard College accepted 3.59% of its applicants.

Now for the bad news (from Harvard's perspective): The number of applications dropped by roughly 5%.

That might not seem like a big deal — the university remains uber-selective — but the decline in applications signals that something's amiss in Cambridge. What's going on?

Antisemitism Claims Pervade Harvard's Campus Climate

One thing we know that's going on at Harvard is rampant antisemitism. At least that's what some Jewish students claim and what the media hasn't hesitated to convey.

Soon after the September 2023 inauguration of Harvard's new president, Claudine Gay, the campus erupted with student protests following the Hamas attack on Israel.

More than 30 Harvard student groups signed a statement saying they hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence, a stance that drew widespread criticism on campus and beyond.

Gay condemned the attack and distanced the university from those student organizations. Yet Harvard's response was deemed too tepid, even amounting to moral cowardice, according to Massachusetts Congressman Jake Auchincloss.

Doxxing trucks around campus displayed messages such as Claudine Gay refuses to protect Jewish students and Claudine Gay: the best friend Hamas ever had.

Billionaire alum Bill Ackman criticized Gay and spearheaded a movement among business executives not to hire Harvard students responsible for the signed statement.

All this led up to the Nov. 1 deadline for Early Action (nonbinding) admission to Harvard. Perhaps as a result of this turmoil — or perhaps as a sheer coincidence — early applications fell by 17%.

A month later, on Dec. 5, Harvard was once again in the news. Gay and fellow presidents Liz Magill from the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) and Sally Kornbluth from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) faced a congressional panel to address antisemitism on their campuses.

When asked if calling for the genocide of Jews would violate their school's code of conduct, all three presidents offered platitudes about free speech depending on context and were taken to task by U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-NY.

The resulting public relations nightmare played out on a national stage (even inspiring a “Saturday Night Live” cold open). Magill resigned within a few days, while her presidential colleagues faced continued criticism.

Only a few days after the congressional debacle, news surfaced of Gay's alleged plagiarism. The Harvard Corporation, the university's chief governing board, stood by Gay.

Meanwhile, as of Jan. 1, the deadline for regular admission, applications to Harvard were down 3%.

The following day, with more plagiarism allegations piling up and public pressure to resign mounting, Gay stepped down, ending her presidency after only six months — the shortest tenure in Harvard's history.

She left in her wake an institution that, in the public's mind, is unfriendly to Jewish students and is devoid of free speech, ranking last on that measure among all American universities. Might that environment dissuade some students from applying?

Students were terrified about the doxxing trucks, the CEOs calling for protester names, students losing job offers for speaking up about Israel-Palestine, Hafeez Lakhani, a private college admissions coach, told The New York Times. I think that drove some applicants to less-spotlight schools.

Oh, and Harvard was also at the epicenter of a landmark Supreme Court case banning race-conscious admissions, a decision that arrived just ahead of last year's college admissions season. Evidently, we learned, Harvard isn't friendly to Asian American students either.

Applications Up at Rival Colleges

Given all these vectors intersecting at once, Harvard may be an outlier among elite institutions, though its drop in applications stands in stark contrast to what many rival schools are experiencing.

Dartmouth College reported an application increase of 10% over last year, as did Yale.

And at the institutions that shared the ill-fated national stage with Harvard, applications are up. Penn experienced a record number of applications — 65,230, a 10% increase over last year's total. MIT saw its application pool increase by 5%.

Applications at Bowdoin College and Amherst College also are up this year, as they are at Columbia University, which was embroiled in student protests over the Israel-Hamas war during the admissions season, much like Harvard.

At Brown University, however, where similar campus unrest unfolded, applications are down 5%.

We don't yet know the racial makeup of Harvard's incoming class, but the application decrease can't be blamed on a dwindling pool of underrepresented minority applicants nationwide.

Despite the murkiness surrounding race and college admissions, the percentage of Black and Latino/a applicants increased by 12% and 13%, respectively, and college applications overall are up 9%, according to the Common Application.

Can Harvard's drop be attributed to the natural vicissitudes of application patterns? The university's dean of admissions and financial aid thinks so.

You never know from one year to another ... precisely why applications go up or why they go down, William R. Fitzsimmons told The Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper. It's meaningful to look over a three- to five-year period. And that's what you should pay attention to.

That period tells an unfavorable story. Since reaching a peak number for the class entering in fall 2022, applications have steadily declined. Last year, applications fell by 7%, and are down again for this cycle. This year's acceptance rate at Harvard is the highest in four years.

Decrying a 3.59% acceptance rate might sound ludicrous, but the emerging pattern warrants attention. At the elite-college level, where students make decisions based on razor-thin margins of difference, small variations in public perception take on greater significance.

A talented student — particularly one who's Jewish or Asian American — might view Harvard as unwelcoming and instead target Ivy-Plus rivals.

Or all this could be a natural leveling off, as Fitzsimmons suggested, a receding tide following a pandemic-driven rise that's perhaps affecting Harvard before most other top schools.

Time will be a better judge, and we'll soon see if Harvard's yield rate — the percentage of students accepting an admission offer — varies from last year. A decline there could be even more telling.

One thing's for certain: If Harvard continues to trend in this direction while rivals experience the opposite fate, the university's leadership will have to reckon with a damaged reputation sorely in need of repair.