There was an interesting article (subscription required) on the front page of the Wall Street Journal today on college admissions. The article, “For Groton Grads, Academics Aren’t Only Keys to Ivy Schools: A Look at Who Got in Where Shows Preferences Go Beyond Racial Ones,” focussed on the experiences of students from the Groton (a fancy New England prep school) class of 1998. Basic thesis was that, in applying to elite universities, it helps to be rich, connected and/or famous. Key unresolved issue, of course, is how much these things matter relative to grades, test scores, activities and so on. The only section that mentioned Williams was this one:

Selective universities justify favoring children of alumni and prospective donors on the grounds that tuition doesn’t cover the entire cost of education. These schools say private gifts subsidize scholarships, faculty salaries and other needs. Children of celebrities, they add, enhance an institution’s visibility. “I will certainly factor in a history of very significant giving to Stanford,” said Robin Mamlet, admissions dean. She added that the university’s development office each year provides her with names of applicants whose parents have been major donors.

Ms. Bass was far from the only child of prominent parents in the Groton class of ’98. It included children of diplomats, international lawyers and famous writers, as well as other wealthy businesspeople. Harvard admitted a dozen members of the class — more than any other Ivy League university. At least five of those accepted by Harvard were alumni children, including Matthew Burr. His father, Boston venture capitalist Craig L. Burr, gave his alma mater between $1 million and $5 million in the mid-1990s, according to Harvard records.

Matthew Burr ranked fourth in his Groton class but had an SAT score of 1240. Three-fourths of Harvard students have SAT scores of 1380 or higher. Mr. Burr applied to one other college, Williams, which rejected him. Now a Harvard senior, Matthew Burr says he took the SAT four times. “I just don’t test well,” he says. He acknowledges his father’s Harvard ties aided his admission chances. “I don’t think legacy is a fair criterion for people to get into college,” he adds. “But for me, that was the way it was.”

Craig Burr says his donation to Harvard had “absolutely nothing to do” with his son’s acceptance. “Matthew did not need any help because he had phenomenal grades,” he says. Harvard declines to comment on individual applicants.


1) Mr. Burr is, of course, wrong in his claim that Harvard doesn’t care about his past and future generosity. Of course, if it were my child, I would say the same thing to any WSJ reporter who called. The key clue is young Matthew’s rejection from Williams. The number of students rejected by Williams and accepted by Harvard is small. (If anyone knows, even ballpark, how big it is, please let us know.) The number of such students who don’t have a Harvard-specific hook, almost always active/generous/wealthy alumni connections, is almost certainly tiny.

2) A related point is that student preference for Harvard over Williams is probably a market failure in the sense that most students who go to Harvard (or Yale or Princeton or fancy research university X) would have been better off going to Williams (or Swathmore or Amherst or small liberal arts college Y). This is actually too broad a topic for this post, but, having known hundreds of Harvard undergraduates (my wife and I were “tutors”, essentially JA’s for upperclassmen, for 4 years at Harvard), I am pretty sure that it is true.

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