There’s more to college — and life — than being brilliant

In this Aug. 30, 2012, file photo, a tour group walks through the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.
In this Aug. 30, 2012, file photo, a tour group walks through the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. AP

One of the most closely watched lawsuits in recent memory involving college admissions is currently unfolding. A group representing Asian-American students is suing Harvard for what they claim is a violation of civil rights law resulting in discriminatory admissions policies.

For every one of the 1,600 students admitted to the freshman class at Harvard, there are 19 applicants rejected. Many of these disappointed teens have perfect test scores and the highest attainable GPA, which means they are really smart.

While intelligence is necessary, it is not sufficient in Harvard’s eyes. And recently Wake Forest and High Point College emphatically agreed by doing away with standardized test scores on their applications. Duke just made the written portion of the SAT and ACT optional.

Harvard’s stated goal is to build a diverse class of “citizens and citizen leaders” who will influence society in a positive way. Its mission is not to create a collection of the highest IQ or most studious young people.

The current class at Harvard is 16 percent African-American, higher than the proportion of blacks in America. About 12 percent are Hispanic or Latino, slightly below the overall population in the country. And 23 percent are Asian, four times their proportion of the U.S. population.

When I applied to graduate school at Harvard, my father told me I had no chance of being accepted. I was a graduate of Raleigh’s Sanderson High School and of a public university in Chapel Hill. No one from Sanderson had ever gone to Harvard Business School. I was a white kid who had never been to Boston, or even New York for that matter.

But to achieve its mission of a diverse student body, Harvard offered me a slot. While I was at Harvard Business School, I was voted chairman of the committee of presidents of all the student clubs and organizations, a role which provided me access to administrators who shared some of the contents in the black box used to reject 90 percent of the business school’s applicants.

That I came from North Carolina, rather than New York or California, was a plus for geographic diversity. They considered my academic achievements at a middle-class public high school to calibrate whether I had more or less potential than someone coming out of Exeter or Choate.

They cared that I had coached a junior tennis team in Raleigh, taking it from last place to first place in the city league. They liked that I paid for the majority of my college, unlike the children of the many millionaires who applied.

What Harvard was looking for was not simply kids who went to the right prep schools, had the highest test scores, or had parents who were alumni. They wanted future leaders, and they wanted a highly diverse class that could expose leaders to other leaders with different backgrounds and perspectives, so that they could learn from each other.

Private universities need to be free to establish their mission and decide what make-up of students can best accomplish that mission. Since so much of the learning experience in college is what we learn from our classmates, the composition of the student body is perhaps the most critical variable in accomplishing a school’s mission.

And if that means some brilliant young people are not accepted, so be it. Scholastic achievement is an important consideration in college admissions, but it should not be the only consideration in admissions policies. It’s certainly not the only thing that matters in life.

Community columnist Michael Jacobs is CEO of Jacobs Capital and on the faculty of UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School.

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