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At Harvard, significantly more black students are admitted than enrolled

Harvard YardCraig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Nearly one in six, or 15 percent, of students that Harvard University offered admission to this spring were African-American. But step onto Harvard’s campus, and the student body looks far less diverse.

In fact, according to the most recent federal data available, just 8 percent of Harvard’s undergraduates are black and just over 9 percent of the incoming freshmen last year were black.

So what happens between admissions and the first day of classes?

“They do a good job with black kids, but not as good as with everybody else,” said Robert Bruce Slater, the managing editor of the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, which tracks admissions and enrollment at colleges.


Harvard may have a generous financial aid package and a brand that can open professional doors, but high-performing black high school students are applying to multiple top-tier schools and getting offers from most of them, Slater said.

Harvard is in competition with Stanford University, MIT, Duke University, or a historically black college, such as Howard University, he said.

So much depends on what students want from their college experience. They may lean toward a college close to home, prefer a certain program that a university offers, feel more accepted and comfortable at a particular campus, or get more financial aid from a school, Slater said.

Harvard “is facing a lot of competition,” he said.

Many elite universities also tap into the same high schools and college preparatory programs to recruit top minority students, resulting in the same group of students from this limited pool, getting offers from multiple colleges.

Harvard’s admissions data and its practices are under greater scrutiny now, as a lawsuit about affirmative action brought by Students for Fair Admissions, winds its way through the legal system.

Harvard declined to comment for this story because of the ongoing lawsuit. But officials pointed out that the university is getting better at enrolling the black students it admits. So far, almost 76 percent of black students who were admitted in the spring have enrolled as freshmen, up from 75 percent last year. Harvard’s data includes students are black and those who are multi-racial.


The lawsuit in front of a US district court judge in Boston claims that Harvard’s use of race in admissions disadvantages Asian-American students.

The group representing some Asian-American students claims that the university caps the number of Asian-American students it enrolls. Of the nearly 2,000 students admitted into the incoming freshman class at Harvard, around 23 percent are Asian-Americans.

Students for Fair Admissions will be filing extensive documents making its case in US District Court in Boston on Friday. Harvard too will be filing documents defending its practices.

Edward Blum, who leads Students for Fair Admissions, was previously involved in an affirmative action case against the University of Texas involving a white student. Higher education officials and legal experts are watching the Harvard case, which could end up in front of the US Supreme Court and challenge affirmative action policies at universities nationwide.

The Supreme Court has previously upheld the use of race in college admissions.

Outgoing Harvard president Drew Faust on Tuesday called Harvard’s policies legal and sent a letter to the university community standing behind the university’s efforts to diversify its student body.

“A diverse student body enables us to enrich, to educate, and to challenge one another,” Faust said in defending Harvard’s policies as legal and fair. “Harvard students benefit from working and living alongside people of different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives as they prepare for the complex world that awaits them and their considerable talents.”


Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.