Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Harvard Attracts More Potential Engineers

Though aspiring Harvard students may spend this week mired in uncertainty as they wait for admission decisions on April 1, one thing is almost certain: more admitted students than ever before will come to Harvard with the hope of pursuing engineering and applied science.

Cited by Harvard Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 as one of three central trends driving an increase in applications to Harvard, the rise in applicants interested in these fields has been all but meteoric since the establishment of an independent School of Engineering and Applied Sciences almost three years ago.

Previously, when SEAS was still the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences, the number of applicants interested in engineering held steady at about 2,500 each year. But over the course of the next three years, the admissions committee has seen a 68 percent surge in applicants who list their primary interest as engineering sciences, during a period in which the total number of applicants to Harvard has risen by about only 11 percent.

The increase, while significant, is not wholly unexpected. The College admissions staff has maintained a concerted effort to publicize the creation of SEAS, striving to dispel the notion that Harvard is primarily a school for the liberal arts, according to Fitzsimmons. This undertaking—coming at a time when national interest in science and technology is rising—appears to have been successful.

But the increase in applicants—and thus, potential concentrators—will challenge SEAS in new ways. While SEAS Dean Cherry A. Murray detailed plans to expand the engineering school during an “All-Hands” Meeting earlier this month, she also noted that the school’s space was already “severely constrained.”

“Any future growth will be done in such a way to ensure we can support the increase in the number of students,” Murray said in an e-mailed statement. ‘We plan to grow without growing apart.”


Harvard has aggressively advertised the new opportunities offered by the creation of SEAS in its on-campus information sessions and in its outreach efforts to high schools in dozens of cities across the country, according to Fitzsimmons.

“Basically any time we saw students, we talked about the new school,” Fitzsimmons says. He adds that the recent creation of majors in Human Developmental and Regenerative Biology and Biomedical Engineering gave admissions officers additional talking points to entice students interested in applied science.

“There are lots of people who have this outdated stereotype of Harvard as pretty much humanities and social science,” Fitzsimmons says. “It obviously attracts everybody to have strong engineering. It’s a huge asset.”

Prior to the creation of SEAS, engineering concentrators studied within the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences, which Computer Science professor and former Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 describes as “halfway between a department and a school.”

As Lewis explains, the 2008 chartering of SEAS broadly increased awareness of engineering at Harvard. And because Harvard does not consider engineering applicants separately—unlike other colleges including Cornell and Columbia—the creation of SEAS allowed Harvard to offer the unique opportunity to study engineering within an independent school without having to make a decisive career choice as a high school senior.

“Harvard has the advantage that to be an engineer here, you simply apply to be a student at Harvard College, with all of the other resources that Harvard College students have,” Lewis says.

At the same that the admissions office has been advertising SEAS, individuals within the school itself have worked to increase the visibility of Harvard engineering and the various research projects undertaken in the field.

According to former Dean of SEAS Venkatesh “Venky” Narayanamurti, the establishment of the school allowed for greater outreach efforts to potential students through the SEAS Communications Office. These efforts included redesigning the official Web site, hosting Web chats, and calling high school seniors.

SEAS also makes additional recruiting efforts once students are admitted to Harvard. According to Lewis, the school attempts to have a faculty member call or e-mail every admitted student who has listed engineering as his or her primary interest.


Some part of the success of Harvard’s outreach efforts may be attributed to the increased national interest in engineering and applied science in recent years.

According to annual surveys of students entering four-year colleges conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at University of California, Los Angeles, interest in engineering began rising again in 2008 following a multi-year decline. Overall interest in science, engineering, and technology also remains significantly elevated from levels in the 1980s and early 1990s.

“I suspect shifting socioeconomic trends (the economy, the exposure of today’s student to technology) and the greater interest in students who really want to make a difference in the world solving societal problems is attracting more concentrators in engineering,” Murray wrote.

MIT Dean of Admissions Stuart Schmill echoes this sentiment, noting a rising awareness of the value of an engineering education.

“I think that there is broad recognition in the country, particularly, among high school students, about the importance of having a strong background in science and technology to do anything in the future,” Schmill says.

But the dynamic growth in engineering at Harvard may be exceptional even compared to other institutions. According to Schmill, the proportion of MIT applicants who express an interest in engineering has remained relatively constant over the past few years, while Harvard admissions statistics reveal that the proportion of Harvard applicants interested in the field has soared.


Yet with potential continued growth among concentrators within SEAS, the school faces the possibility that facilities might run short.

But both Venky and Murray dismiss notions that the increase in the size of the student body would be allowed to strain the resources of the faculty.

Venky says that it is important to have space for teaching labs, and that he sees the availability of physical space as the biggest limitation.

“We will have to add more faculty and more space, or stop the growth,” Venky says.

Murray wrote that as of yet, SEAS has “been able to handle the increase in concentrators without a dramatic drop in the faculty to student ratio.”

As she signaled in her “All-Hands” meeting on Mar. 1, SEAS plans to add an additional 50 full-time equivalent faculty members over the next 10 years to support continued expansion.

And as President of the Harvard College Engineering Society Evelyn J. Park ’11 says, the growth in engineering interest may improve the overall experience of undergraduate engineering concentrators beyond expanding their academic opportunities.

“Right now, we’re one of the smaller concentrations on campus, and you get a lot of questions like, “Why are you doing engineering at Harvard when MIT is just down the street?’” Park says. “The Engineering Society has been trying to build up more spirit and a sense of community among the engineers, and I think having more people will definitely help with that.”

—Staff writer Gautam S. Kumar can be reached at

—Staff writer Evan T. R. Rosenman can be reached at

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Z-Listed Students Take a Year-Off

Undergrads take mandatory gap year before coming to Harvard

Jason S. Wien ’13 was visiting Northwestern University, the school he had committed to attending, when he got the call.

Katie N. Rice ’14 had already attended her freshman orientation program at the University of Arizona, and Emily M. Orlins ’11 had learned the name of her roommate at Cornell University.

These students’ college plans were set—until they got a call from Harvard.

We don’t have room for you in the freshman class entering this fall, Harvard told them. But if you’re willing to wait a year, you’re invited to attend.


Each year, Harvard offers admission to a select group of students—known among admissions officers as the “Z-list”—on the condition that they take a mandatory year off before enrolling in the College.

Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 says that of the 60 to 100 students in each class who take a gap year before coming to Harvard, roughly half do so voluntarily. The other half were Z-listed.

Fitzsimmons says that although the practice of Z-listing dates back to the early 1970s, the number of Z-listed students has increased over the years. In 2002, Director of Admissions Marlyn E. McGrath ’70-’73 told The Crimson that there were 20 Z-listed students in each class. Today, that number has reached 30 to 50.

The term Z-list was coined by the office’s computer technicians due to the fact that these students are the final group to be admitted each year. After regular decisions and waitlist admissions have been made, Fitzsimmons says there are always more students the admissions office would like to accept. These students are offered a spot on the Z-list.

“We are 100 percent sure that we want them here next year, not 99 percent,” Fitzsimmons says of the Z-listed students. “We never quite know what next year’s applicant pool is going to bring.”

Samuel B. Novey ’11 says that when he got a call telling him he’d been Z-listed, “[the admissions officer] made it sound like I was trying to book a hotel. She literally said, ‘Next year we may have a bed available.’”

But Fitzsimmions admits that many find this system illogical, since the 30 to 50 beds that would be needed to house Z-listers in the entering class are the same beds being filled by last year’s Z-listers.

“We all know that this is a zero-sum game,” Fitzsimmons says.


Given a year to spend in nearly any way they choose—apart from enrolling at another academic institution for credit—this group of students comes to Harvard with a wide variety of experiences under their belts.

Some worked—in a company that makes video games, in a rock climbing gym, on a UPS delivery truck, in a neuroscience lab full of monkeys, and on Capitol Hill, to name a few jobs. Some volunteered for charities aiding refugees, cancer patients, and citizens of impoverished nations. Many of them traveled. Collectively, the students interviewed for this article visited 35 countries, spanning every continent but Antarctica.

“I’ve ridden a camel in Timbuktu. I feel like life is complete now,” says Elizabeth M. Letvin ’13.

William N. Forster ’13 says that the sauteed grub intestines that he ate in a remote Ecuadorean village during his gap year tasted “better than the armadillo.”

Nearly all of the students say that their gap years were extremely rewarding and that they would recommend the experience to other incoming college students.

Johnny F. Bowman ’11 says he was “pissed off” when he first learned he had been Z-listed.

But he says that that feeling changed once he saw the possibilities afforded by an extra year between high school and college.

“Once I realized I can do whatever I want to do, it was the most mind-opening realization and subsequent experience of my life,” Bowman says.

Many students say that taking a gap year gave them a chance to unwind after working assiduously throughout high school, and that spending a year away from academics changed their perspective on college.

“Every day I say ‘Yes! I’m at college! More college today!’” says Novey, who worked on a congressional campaign during his gap year and then became a congressional staffer when his candidate won the election. “You could go weeks without seeing a girl your age in D.C. It teaches you to appreciate that you have a built-in social scene.”

Others say their year off allowed them to discover academic interests that they didn’t know they had.

For example, Quentin Z. Auerbach ’11 says that the culinary interest which he developed by taking cooking classes during his gap year led him to choose food policy as the topic of his social studies thesis.

Asher M. Lipson ’12 had never studied French before traveling to France during his year off. Now, he’s concentrating in Romance Languages and Literatures, a decision he says he doubts he would have made otherwise.


While Z-listed students bring a wide range of interests and experiences to Harvard, many people charge that they are similar in two ways—the Z-list has long had a reputation for consisting predominantly of affluent students and Harvard legacies.

Of the 28 students interviewed by The Crimson for this story, 18 have parents who attended Harvard. All but four receive no financial aid from the College, while about 70 percent of the student body receives aid from Harvard.

John W. Anderson, co-director of college counseling at the elite boarding school Phillips Academy in Andover, said that of the Andover students who are Z-listed, “a very, very, very high percent” are legacies.

“I think Harvard does have a strong institutional priority in admitting Harvard sons and daughters,” Anderson says. “[Z-listing] is a good way of accomplishing part of that institutional priority.”

According to Fitzsimmons, Harvard does not aim to use the Z-list to admit legacy students. Instead, he says, the Z-list contains a greater proportion of legacies than the class in general since legacy students might be more willing to accept a spot on the Z-list.

However, Fitzsimmons says the yield for the Z-list is about 67 to 70 percent—not much lower than the 76 percent overall yield that the College reported for the Class of 2013.

Fitzsimmons says that Z-list admissions, like all admissions decisions, are need-blind. However, he says that the cost of funding a year off from school has deterred some students from accepting a Z-list spot.

“Harvard should take into account the students who they’re asking to take a year off and make sure that their families are able to do it,” says a student who wished to remain anonymous, since she says that the Z-list “gives off an impression that is radically different from who I am.”

She receives a full scholarship from Harvard, and she says that it was difficult for her mother to have her living at home a year longer than expected.

Maturity is also frequently cited as a potential rationale behind Z-listing. But according to Fitzsimmons, the College simply views Z-listed students as “good candidates” that it would like to enroll.

“Very rarely do we say to ourselves, maturity is an issue,” Fitzsimmons says.

While some schools such as Middlebury College and the University of Southern California admit students on the condition that they enroll in the spring semester, when beds have been vacated by those who study abroad in the spring or graduate a semester early, Harvard’s practice of requiring students to defer for a year may be unique.

“Harvard can sit back and say, ‘We can do this because we’re Harvard.’” says Stuart Clutterbuck, a guidance counselor at Bergen County Academies, a top magnet high school in New Jersey. He speculates that high school students would be unlikely to accept a one-year deferral at a less prestigious institution.

Despite the secrecy and stigma that some students say accompany being Z-listed, most say they are glad for the opportunity to take a year off before coming to Harvard.

“I’m grateful that I was on the Z-list,” says Madeline S. Peskoe ’14, who has spent this year in Senegal and Argentina and will enter Harvard in the fall. “There’s no way that I would have done this on my own. It was the extra kick that I needed to get off the track. Thanks, Harvard.”

—Staff writer Julie M. Zauzmer can be reached at

White House Court Brief Backs Race-Based Admissions

The Wall Street Journal

MARCH 30, 2010, 11:06 P.M. ET

The Obama administration has asked a federal appeals court to uphold a race-conscious admissions system at the University of Texas at Austin, aiming to stymie a lawsuit that conservatives hope will spur the Supreme Court to limit affirmative action at public colleges.

The Texas case tests a 2003 Supreme Court decision that upheld a race-conscious admissions system at the University of Michigan Law School. That ruling in Grutter v. Bollinger said the law school had "a compelling interest in attaining a diverse student body." By a 5-4 vote, the court prohibited "outright racial balancing," but said race could be a "plus" factor to build a "critical mass" of minority students.

But the Grutter opinion's author, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, retired in 2006, and her successor, Justice Samuel Alito, has helped solidify a five-justice conservative majority that has been highly skeptical when government classifies people by race, even for assertedly benign purposes.

In a 2007 case, Justice Alito joined Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas in an opinion that barred local school boards from considering race when making pupil assignments to integrate elementary and secondary schools. "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race," the chief justice wrote.

The shift in the court has encouraged critics of the Grutter opinion that the court might consider limiting consideration of race to professional schools—whose applicant pools are small and which offer exclusive networking and employment opportunities—or possibly overturning it altogether.

The University of Texas case was brought in 2008 by two white students who were rejected for admission to the state's flagship campus. Three-fourths of freshmen gain admission on academic grounds if they rank among the top 10% of their high school's graduating class. But others are admitted through a "holistic" evaluation in which admission officers, alerted to each applicant's race by a label on his or her file, may take into account racial or ethnic identity, among other factors.

The white students alleged that the admissions formula violated federal civil-rights law. In August, U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks rejected their claim, finding that Texas's admissions plan was legal because it was based on the Michigan system upheld by the Supreme Court.

The plaintiffs then appealed to the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans; whoever loses there likely will ask the Supreme Court to take up the issue.

The case "might cause the Supreme Court to think again" whether diversity remains important enough to justify classifying students by race, said Bert Rein, a Washington attorney representing the plaintiffs.

Patricia Ohlendorf, vice president for legal affairs at the Austin campus, said many private and public universities take some account of race in admissions. Because blacks and Hispanics on average score lower on entrance exams than white and Asian-American applicants, universities have adopted affirmative-action programs to compensate.

"We think it is critical to being able to achieve the diverse institution that we think is important," she said.

The Obama administration agrees. "[The] university's effort to promote diversity is a paramount government objective," says the brief filed by the Education and Justice departments. The administration disputed claims that Texas was simply engaging in raw racial preferences.

"The question is not whether an individual belongs to a racial group, but rather how an individual's membership in any group may provide deeper understanding of the person's record and experiences, as well as the contribution she can make to the school," the brief says.

Texas once enforced official segregation, and it took a 1950 Supreme Court ruling before the University of Texas would admit blacks to its law and graduate schools. In more-recent decades, the state relied on affirmative action to boost minority enrollment, only to have that struck down by the Fifth Circuit in a 1996 decision, Hopwood v. Texas.

In response, Texas adopted a formula offering admission to the top 10% of each high school's graduating class. After the Grutter ruling, Texas resumed considering race. Black enrollment doubled to 6% from 3% and Hispanic enrollment rose to 20% from 13%, according to Judge Sparks's opinion in the case at hand.

The Fifth Circuit hasn't yet scheduled arguments in the case, Fisher v. University of Texas.

Write to Jess Bravin at

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

In Chicago, Obama Aide Had V.I.P. List for Schools

The New York Times
Published: March 23, 2010

When Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, was chief executive of the Chicago Public Schools, his office kept a log of nearly 40 pages listing the local politicians and business people and others who sought help getting children into the city’s most selective public schools.

According to an article Tuesday in The Chicago Tribune, which first obtained and reported on the confidential log, those who sought such help included 25 aldermen, Mayor Richard M. Daley’s office, the State House speaker, the state attorney general, the former White House social secretary and a former United States senator.

A spokesman for the Department of Education said Tuesday that the log was a record of those who asked for help, and that neither Mr. Duncan nor the aide who maintained the list, David Pickens, ever pressured principals to accept a child. Rather, he said, the creation of the list was an effort to reduce pressure on principals.

“Arne Duncan asked David Pickens to respond to all of these requests, some of which came from him, some from lots of other people, as a way to try to manage a process that was putting a lot of pressure on principals,” said Peter Cunningham, who handled communications for Mr. Duncan in Chicago and is now assistant secretary of the Department of Education. “This was an attempt to buffer principals from all the outside pressure, to get our arms around something that was burdensome to them. It was always up to the principal to make the decision. Arne never ever picked up the phone.”

Mr. Pickens was not available for comment Tuesday, said Monique Bond, a spokeswoman for the Chicago schools.

According to The Chicago Tribune, about three-quarters of those in the log had political connections. The log noted “AD” as the person requesting help for 10 students, and as a co-requester about 40 times, according to The Tribune. Mr. Duncan’s mother and wife also appeared to have requested help for students.

“The fact that his name might be next to some of these names doesn’t mean he was trying to get the kid in a school,” Mr. Cunningham said. “He was only asking after someone said, ‘Hi, Arne, is there any way to get into this school?’ ”

Mr. Cunningham said he did not believe principals would have felt any special pressure because Mr. Duncan was the source of the inquiry. “We were always very clear with them that it was up to the principal to make the decision,” he said.

Some of those reported to be on the list confirmed Mr. Cunningham’s assessment. Steve Brown, a spokesman for Representative Michael J. Madigan, the speaker of the State House and chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party, acknowledged that Mr. Madigan had, indeed, “from time to time gotten requests from constituents and passed them along.”

From there, Mr. Brown said, it was entirely up to school officials. “They make the decision,” he said. “There’s absolutely nothing untoward.”

He said he was unaware of precisely how many such requests Mr. Madigan might have made, or whether the students had been let into the schools they wanted.

Among those on the list was former Senator Carol Moseley Braun. A spokesman for Ms. Braun said she had no comment.

Admission to top Chicago schools has long been a competitive and murky process, with longstanding rumors of abuse. Mr. Duncan created a formal appeals process in 2008, and when he left to join the Obama administration, his successor, Ron Huberman, created a system to stop the gaming of the system.

The existence of the list surfaced amid a federal investigation, according to The Tribune. A spokesman for the Department of Education said Tuesday that the investigation stemmed from a case involving a school principal after Mr. Duncan left.

In July, Mr. Huberman announced an internal investigation of the city’s 52 application-based elementary and high schools. The president of the Chicago school board, Michael Scott, who had been subpoenaed in the federal investigation, committed suicide in November.

Tamar Lewin reported from New York, and Monica Davey from Chicago. Sam Dillon contributed reporting from New York.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Harvard will raise tuition

Harvard University will increase tuition next school year by 3.8 percent, the school announced yesterday, bringing the annual cost of a Harvard education, including room and board, to $50,724. At the same time, the school said it would increase undergraduate financial aid for the 2010-11 school year by 9 percent, to $158 million. More than 60 percent of students receive aid, with need-based grants averaging about $40,000, Harvard said.

“Harvard remains committed to a fully need-blind admissions policy that will enable us to continue attracting the most talented students, regardless of their economic circumstances,’’ said Michael D. Smith, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Under an initiative Harvard introduced in 2007, families earning between $60,000 and $120,000 a year are asked to contribute between zero and 10 percent of their annual income, on a sliding scale. Those earning between $120,000-$180,000 pay 10 percent.

On Wednesday, Boston University said it would raise tuition 3.7 percent. The cost of education and basic room and board at BU will be $51,574.

200 students promised admission

Academic ‘likely letters’ ensure seniors’ acceptances if they maintain grades

Unlike their anxious friends, a few regular decision students already know that they’ve gotten into college.

While it is customary for athletes to receive “likely letters” from schools involved in the recruiting process, non-athletes are also being sent letters notifying them of their successful application this month.

Dean of Admissions Eric Furda explained that a likely letter informs a student of their acceptance before April 1. As long as the student maintains solid academic and moral standing, their admission is secure.

This year Penn sent out approximately 200 likely letters — an increase from last year’s 120.

The increase came from targeting those who study natural sciences such as physics and chemistry since these are traditionally “under-enrolled” majors, Furda said.

Before likely letters, Ivy League schools would inform athletes of their acceptance after most other schools. In order to prevent students from having to decline other offers because they are waiting to hear from the Ivies, likely letters were sent out.

Now, they are “used in a strategic fashion for students who are clearly at the top end of their applicant pool,” Furda explained.

Vanna Cairns, upper school dean at the Harvard-Westlake School in California, said they did not see a difference in likely letter numbers this year.

Cairns said a letter creates a “psychological advantage” for the student and college since the student becomes excited about that school in particular.

She did not believe that it affected the students who had applied to the same institutions but did not received letters because they would find out anyway and because applying to schools “isn’t a kind process anyway.”

As for why colleges issue these, Cairns said that it is most likely because “yield of those receiving likely letters is higher.”

Calvin Jones, a senior at the Pingry School in Martinsville, NJ, received a likely letter from Penn.

“Although it’s great to know I’ve been accepted into such a school as prestigious as Penn, receiving a likely letter probably won’t affect what school I choose when I make my decision in May,” he said.

Calling likely letters the college version of “first dibs,” College Confidential advisor Sally Rubenstone wrote in an e-mail that the letters allow colleges to say they really want someone while other schools just want them.

Because the letters “turn up far more heat in the admissions pressure-cooker than they reduce,” Rubenstone wrote that she believes colleges should not send out likely letters.

Since students are very active electronically, Rubenstone wrote that “news travels fast, and stress levels skyrocket for every candidate who doesn’t receive a likely letter.”

While Rubenstone thinks schools should stick to their original date of acceptance releases, Furda said sending likely letters is a “fairly common practice.”

At Harvard, reengineering science

New focus, majors draw in students

CAMBRIDGE — Harvard University, the liberal arts bastion that tried several times in the early 20th century to unload its engineering program on MIT, is in the midst of a scientific renaissance.

The number of Harvard students declaring science and engineering majors has risen 27 percent in the past five years and now accounts for nearly a third of the university’s undergraduates.

This school year, Harvard introduced one of the country’s first undergraduate degrees in human developmental and regenerative biology, known on campus as the stem cell major. Last week, it approved a major in biomedical engineering, to debut next fall.

And over the next five years, Harvard’s three-year-old School of Engineering and Applied Sciences hopes to begin offering majors in electrical engineering, applied physics, and mechanical engineering.

The recent push is reshaping the university as it responds to the changing needs of students and to those of a modern world urgently seeking answers on climate change and genetics and in other critical fields.

“Harvard has been sort of a sleeping giant in the sciences,’’ said Jeremy Bloxham, dean of science in the university’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “Because of the great strength of the humanities and social sciences, we have been a little bit in the shadow. Perhaps we are now emerging from that shadow.’’

The new emphasis at Harvard, which has educated or employed generations of acclaimed scientists, including a number of Nobel Prize recipients in chemistry and physics, mirrors an increase being seen at other elite institutions. Yale, Princeton, and Stanford universities are also reporting a steady rise in science majors.

While Harvard says it does not aspire to be as focused on science and engineering as MIT, its neighbor down the Charles River, faculty and administrators believe the increased focus on science is helping Harvard to recruit top students. Of applicants for next year’s freshman class, 58 percent expressed their intent to major in the sciences, a 52 percent increase from 2005, according to admissions office data. Engineering alone saw a 76 percent growth in interest.

Students of modest means or who may be the first in their families to attend college are more likely to choose science and engineering over the humanities because they view the fields as more practical, some professors said. Harvard has stepped up its recruitment of such students in recent years.

Since 2006, Harvard has unveiled seven new undergraduate majors, and all of them have been in the sciences. It has also expanded its science and engineering faculty by 18 percent, to 275 professors, in the last five years.

“These are efforts by a leading liberal arts university to come to grips with the world that is changing around it,’’ said George Whitesides, a chemistry professor who graduated from Harvard in 1960. “It’s also evidence of students thinking about what they need to do to get a job in a globalized world. It requires undergraduates to work harder and those of us who teach to teach more effectively.’’

Some science professors admit that the university’s new focus and the growth in student interest has stoked some anxiety among colleagues in the humanities, given the expense of building new facilities and recruiting world-class scientists.

But, others argue that Harvard cannot afford not to further embrace the sciences, despite its current budget crunch.

“What’s changing in the world right now? For better or worse, it’s science and technology,’’ Whitesides said. “If you’re going to be a citizen in this society, you better know how all this stuff works.’’

The changes are evident beginning in students’ first year. Instead of introductory biology or chemistry courses that required freshmen to memorize endless lists of facts, Harvard now offers a broader life-science approach that integrates disciplines and shows first-year students why science matters in the real world. Through the lens of AIDS and cancer, students learn basic biology, cell biology, physiology, and population genetics.

“We said, ‘Let’s teach freshmen everything they would need to know about HIV if they were going to be president of the United States,’ ’’ said Douglas Melton, codirector of Harvard’s Stem Cell Institute.

Melton, along with molecular and cellular biology professor Robert Lue, led the undergraduate life science curriculum away from what they called the “eat your spinach’’ approach to education.

In 2005, the first year the introductory life science course replaced basic chemistry or biology offerings, freshmen enrollment shot up 40 percent to 550 students. Nearly 700 students are taking it this year.

Harvard senior Julia Rudolf, an aspiring surgeon majoring in human evolutionary biology, said the course made science more exciting because students learned about critical specifics, like how surface proteins dock to the HIV virus.

“Science was no longer about memorizing the steps of the Krebs cycle, but learning the basic mechanisms that underlie biology and chemistry and applying them to new situations,’’ Rudolf said. “It took all the roteness out of science.’’

Classes have also been revised to introduce more laboratory experiences starting in freshman year. This was made possible by the construction of a new science building in 2008 housing state-of-the-art labs and classrooms (the recent freeze on Harvard’s expansion delayed plans for a $1 billion science complex in Allston). Students in the stem cell major conduct experiments on human embryonic stem cells in class.

Engineering professors now assign more projects, such as designing a hand-powered flashlight. The introductory computer science course boasts modernized problem sets challenging students to create an E*Trade-like website that incorporates real-time stock quotes.

Harvard is also making science more accessible for those who are not science majors through a set of courses that fulfill the new general education requirement that all students study the “science of the physical universe.’’ One course on the physics of music and sound teaches the physics of vibrations and waves, but also how the human ear responds to sound.

“Science has too often been taught as a mode of exclusion, as a way of sorting people out,’’ Harvard president Drew Faust, who is a historian, said in an interview. “Science education isn’t just for people who are going to be Nobel Prize-winning scientists. We need to have an education that enables a wide range of students to be excited by the sciences. People who go into policy fields need to understand science. They can’t just say, ‘That isn’t for me.’ ’’

And through a better advising system, more students than ever before are connected with research opportunities with faculty as early as freshman year, which professors say help students decide to stick with science. Of students surveyed in 2009, nearly half in the sciences had conducted research outside of class.

Freshman Drew Simon said the new stem cell major and the research opportunities it could bring helped sway him to choose Harvard over Princeton University. His freshman adviser directed him to the right professors, and even though he had no research experience, by his second semester he landed a spot in a lab doing cardiovascular research through Massachusetts General Hospital.

“When you come into Harvard, it can be really daunting, so to be able to be hooked up with that as a freshman is really awesome,’’ Simon said.

Tracy Jan can be reached at

Georgetown Emails Biology Applicants in Error

Georgetown follows George Washington’s lead

Thirty regular decision applicants to Georgetown University, who have not yet been officially accepted to the university, received e-mails from the biology department, which congratulated them and welcomed them into the Class of 2014.

The Office of Undergraduate Admissions sent the biology department a list of acceptees from the Early Action program who had expressed interest in studying biology, but also inadvertently included on this list the names of the 30 regular decision applicants who were likely to be accepted. The department of biology sent the congratulatory e-mails to all the applicants on the list, to both accepted early-action applicants and to the regular-decition applicants.

Following the minor mishap, the admissions office sent the 30 elated students another e-mail, which stated that though they had not officially been accepted, they were “likely” to be admitted.

In February, The George Washington University sent acceptance e-mails to roughly 200 of its Early Decision II applicants who had (already) been notified of their rejection a few weeks earlier.

What’s going on in Washington?

By Wonpyo Yun, staff writer for News

Asian-American students getting short stick in college admissions

By Barb Shelly, Kansas City Star editorial page columnist

As the mom of a high school senior who keeps an eye on these things, I've been noticing that students of Asian background can have absolutely stellar credentials and still be waitlisted or rejected at selective colleges.

True, the competition has never been so intense, and the college admissions process will never be completely fair. I support attempts by universities to invite students from a variety of backgrounds to their campuses. But anecdotally, it seems as though Asian kids have to clear a higher barrier than anyone else.

I checked it out, and the perception is more than anecdotal. A 2004 study by Princeton University researchers established that Asian kids need to score 50 points higher on the SAT than kids of other races to have a chance at getting admitted to the so-called elite universities.

Daniel Golden, who wrote a riveting book about the inequities in college admissions, calls Asian students "the new Jews," referring to unwritten policies before 1950 that set blatantly high bars for even the brightest Jewish applicants.

The problem, says Golden, is that college admission offices assume that Asian kids are going to be robotically drilled in the maths and sciences and lack creativity and depth. One admissions dean whom Golden interviewed referred to a rejected student from a Korean-American family as "yet another textureless math grind."

May I say first of all that this country would do well do encourage math grinds. But more pertinently here, what a stereotype. High school counselors and college admissions staffers should look at Asian-American kids as the amazing, multitalented young people they are, not math or science drones.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Book Trains Critical Eye on AP Program's Impact

By Debra Viadero

Published in Print: March 17, 2010
Education Week

At a time of mushrooming interest in Advanced Placement tests, a new book assembles studies on how capable the program is of meeting the increasingly diverse expectations held up for it.

“The AP program is not going to solve all the problems of American education,” said Philip M. Sadler, one of the editors of AP: A Critical Examination of the Advanced Placement Program, being published this month by Harvard Education Press. “I think AP is really good for some things and not very good for other things,” said Mr. Sadler, a senior lecturer in astronomy at Harvard University, “and people should be aware of what its strengths and weaknesses are.”

Despite quibbles with some of the studies in the book, officials from the College Board, the New York City-based group that runs the program, called the new volume a “landmark collection” in an area where scholarship is badly needed.

“The College Board has long lamented the fact that, except for the grants our organization distributes to fund AP-focused research, there has seemed to be little interest among independent researchers in AP,” Trevor Packer, the board’s vice president for Advanced Placement programs, wrote in an e-mail message.

Growing out of a symposium held at Harvard in 2007, the book focuses on AP science courses in particular and offers evidence on whether they give students an academic edge in college or persuade them to earn degrees in science-related fields. It examines whether the bonus points that colleges and high schools assign to students’ AP grades are warranted, if the program shortens the time it takes to earn a degree, and whether just expanding access to the college-level courses is enough to prepare disadvantaged students for college.
Becoming All Things

Begun in the 1950s to let gifted students undertake college-level work in high school, AP courses, in Mr. Sadler’s words, have since become “the juggernaut of high school education.” Growing at a rate of 9.3 percent a year in the past two decades, enrollment in AP courses well outpaces the 1 percent yearly increase in the number of students graduating from high school, the book says.
Coursetaking Trends

The percentage of high school graduates taking Advanced Placement courses in science and mathematics has risen sharply in recent decades.

The interest stems in part from rankings that judge schools’ quality based on how many AP courses they offer. Students also increasingly see AP credits as a ticket to college. And education reformers hope that expanding access to AP courses among disadvantaged student groups might help close academic-achievement gaps.

President George W. Bush in 2006 also called for training 70,000 more high school teachers to teach Advanced Placement courses in math and science as part of a broader initiative to boost the numbers of students entering the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM.

“With all the other baggage we put on it, we shouldn’t be surprised that the program doesn’t perform miracles,” said Kristen Klopfenstein, another editor of the book and a senior researcher at the University of Texas at Dallas’ Texas Schools Project.

A study by Ms. Klopfenstein suggests that AP courses may not do something they’ve long been advertised to accomplish: shorten the time it takes to earn a college degree.

Drawing on data for nearly 29,000 Texas students who graduated from high school in spring 1997, she found that students who had taken AP classes were no more likely to graduate from college in four years than students who had not done so. Enrollment in AP shortens the time to earn a degree only for the small group of students with enough AP credits to enter college as sophomores, she says.

On the other hand, students who participated in dual-enrollment programs, which allow them to take college classes while still in high school, managed to graduate from college sooner on average than peers coming out of traditional high school programs, Ms. Klopfenstein said.

Mr. Packer of the College Board argues, however, that the new findings run counter to those of other independent researchers using more recent data—some of whom found that taking AP enhances the likelihood of students’ graduating in four years or less.

One difference between the studies, Mr. Packer said, may be that Ms. Klopfenstein focused only on high school students who took AP courses in the senior year, thus putting the students who had taken such courses earlier into the non-AP camp.

Yet in such a large study, that number of students would be small, Ms. Klopfenstein said. That’s because most of the students in her data set took AP classes in the senior year, and the average number of classes they took in high school was only two, she said.

Many students miss out on college credit for AP courses when they fail to earn the passing scores on AP exams that their colleges require. While most colleges grant credit for a score of 3 or higher on a 5-point scale, some set the bar higher, requiring a 4 or 5, and some don’t give credit for particular AP classes.

Also, some students elect to retake the AP course they took in high school by enrolling in an introductory-level course in the same subject in college.

In his study, Mr. Sadler and his research partner, Gerhard Sonnert, look more closely at the retakers in 55 randomly selected colleges across the country.

Their aim was to see whether students who took and passed high school AP courses had an edge over their college classmates in the same subject, after controlling for differences in students’ academic backgrounds or previous science coursework. (AP course-takers typically have more extensive science backgrounds and better grades than non-AP students.)

The answer, judging by the students’ grades in the introductory-level college classes, was yes. The former AP students didn’t ace the classes—their grades fell on average in the range of B to B-plus—but they did better in their chemistry, physics, and biology classes than peers without any AP experience.

That was not the case, though, for students who had previously failed an AP biology test; they fared no better in that subject in college.
Grade Bump

In another study featured in the book, Mr. Sadler also applies some systematic analysis to the GPA-boosting “bonus points” that high schools often assign to AP-course grades. College-admissions officers also use similar methods to add weight to AP-course grades when comparing students’ grades.

To find out if the extra points were warranted, Mr. Sadler asked college students in 113 introductory biology, physics, and chemistry courses about the level of high school science courses they had taken and the grades they received in them. He then compared the results with professors’ reports of their students’ grades in those introductory science classes.

Mr. Sadler found that students who took honors or AP courses in high school science added an average of 2.4 grade points, on a 100-point scale, to their college science grades for each additional level of rigor. Based on that calculation, he figures that students who take honors courses ought to receive an extra half-point on a grade-point-average scale of 1 to 4, while AP courses ought to be worth an extra point, and an extra 2 points if students pass the exam.

“I think it’s the only article I’ve seen that provides evidence for how to calculate high school GPAs,” Mr. Sadler said of his study. “Everywhere else, they just use a rule of thumb.”

Mr. Sadler suggests, however, that college-admissions officials use caution in adopting his scale, to avoid penalizing students from schools where AP classes may not be available.
Questions Raised

While Mr. Sadler’s studies suggest that the program gives students an edge in college, other studies in the book raise questions about nationwide efforts to increase AP participation. In their chapter, for instance, researchers Chrys Dougherty and Lynne T. Mellor of the National Center for Educational Achievement, in Austin, Texas, draw on five years of data collected when Texas’ efforts to expand access to college-preparation courses were getting under way.

They found that, once differences in students’ backgrounds were accounted for, AP students were no more likely to graduate from college than non-AP students. But the opposite was true for AP students who both took and passed AP exams.

The study also found that exam failure rates were disproportionately high among African-American, Hispanic, and low-income students, the disadvantaged groups the policy aimed to help, and that many such students had to take remedial courses in college.

States and districts have tried to increase access to AP by providing subsidies to cover students’ exam fees. But Ms. Klopfenstein argues that, given her findings on the amount of time it takes AP students to earn a degree, such policies are not cost-effective.

In another study, Robert H. Tai, an associate professor of education at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, uses data from the National Educational Longitudinal Study of 1988 to see whether efforts aimed at expanding students’ participation in AP science courses could be an effective way to nurture more scientists and engineers.

“I talk to many people who get good scores on AP exams in order to avert having to take the same course in college,” he said. He found, however, that students who took an AP science class in high school were more than twice as likely to earn a degree in the field in college. But he also cautions against reading too much into his findings, because his data predate recent expansions of the AP program.

“I am by no means anti-AP,” said Mr. Tai, also one of the book’s editors. “I think there needs to be more discussion about what the program is capable of actually delivering, and it needs to be based on data.”

More California youth applying to out-of-state universities, say admission officers

By Lisa M. Krieger
Posted: 03/11/2010 05:56:01 PM PST

With the state's higher education system in crisis, more California students are vying for admission at out-of-state universities, applying for seats at campuses from the hills of upstate New York to the snowy flatlands of Ohio to the deserts of Arizona.

University officials at public and private schools across the country are reporting record levels of California applicants to next fall's freshman class — an intellectual flight pattern that worries public-policy experts, who fear students may never return.

The trend comes as the University of California and California State University systems are shedding courses, reducing enrollment and furloughing professors. And many outside schools are boosting their recruitment of Golden State students.

The demand for space in California universities could intensify in the future, concludes a report released this week by the California Postsecondary Education Commission. The commission urged the state to prepare to serve an additional 387,000 students, a 16 percent increase, by 2019.

Meanwhile, the University of Washington in Seattle received 3,830 freshman applications from Californians — a 22 percent increase over last year's 3,120. By comparison, UW's total applicant pool climbed only 9.5 percent. Arizona State University in Tempe received 1,000 more California applications this year than last, a 24 percent increase.

On the other side of the country, the University of Delaware reported a 36 percent increase in California applications and the University of Virginia, a 24 percent uptick.

The surge is not fueled by an extra-large crop of California high school seniors; freshman applications to UC are up 2.4 percent and CSU, 7 percent.

Students and their families say they are being extra-cautious, given limited access to California's top schools. Georgia Thomas, 17, of San Mateo earned a grade-point average over 4.2 — due to A's in her Advanced Placement classes — while attending Aragon High School.

While she's already been accepted by the University of Michigan, University of Washington and University of Texas — the top schools in those states — she's waiting to hear from the University of California.

"Berkeley and UCLA are her first choices, but she applied out of state due to concerns she might not be accepted at UC's flagship campuses," said her father, Winston Thomas, chief operating officer of the biotech company Deltagen.

The Public Policy Institute of California bemoans the trend, saying the state's knowledge-based economy can't afford to lose its top students. It projects that by 2025, 41 percent of the state's jobs will require a college degree — but only 35 percent of California adults will have one. If current trends persist, according to the institute's analysis, the state will face a shortfall of one million college graduates.

"It's a bad idea to have some of your most talented high school graduates leaving the state to go to college elsewhere — because it is less likely that they'll come back to California once they leave," said Hans Johnson of the public-policy institute. "We need more college graduates to help build our economy."

"It's a sign that California is less desirable for people who are on a good path in life," he said. "And it is a reflection of the lack of educational opportunities here."

Latino increases

Pricey private schools are also reporting eye-popping increases in applications from California. The elite University of Pennsylvania got 3,350 applications, a 22 percent increase. At Colgate University, in the Snowbelt of New York, they're up 15 percent; at Swarthmore, they're up 16 percent; Villanova, 34 percent. The small Ohio-based College of Wooster received 222 applications from California compared with 137 last year.

Even at the deeply Southern campus of Washington and Lee University — where Confederate general Robert E. Lee and his horse, Traveller, are buried — California now ranks right behind Virginia in volume of applications. Four years ago, 159 Californians applied to Washington and Lee; this year, 472 did.

Previous analyses suggested that California's enrollment pressures would ease because the state's high school population is leveling off. But according to the new projection, so-called "participation rates" are climbing, because more young people — particularly Latinos — seek to attend college. By 2019, Latino undergraduate demand will increase by 42 percent, according to the California Postsecondary Education Commission report.

Because of the growth, the state must provide additional funding for expansion — or 277,000 students may be turned away next year because the schools don't have enough money for instruction, according to the report.

Some may change their minds about college, experts fear. Others will simply go elsewhere.

"Students see that other states still have capacity," said University of Oregon admissions director Brian Henley.

Contact Lisa M. Krieger at 408-920-5565.