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Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers, Commencement Address 2004

Cambridge, Mass.


Before I say anything else, I want to recognize Ron Daniel, who will step down later this month as Treasurer of the University after 15 years of distinguished service. Ron has made countless contributions to this University. Ron, thank you for a job well done.

This has been a productive year at your University. The Faculty of Arts and Sciences has completed the first phase of a curriculum review that promises to bring students and faculty closer together as we reshape the college experience for our students. We have begun to set a course to guide development of our land in Allston, and we have retained a planning firm to help us think through the exciting array of options for science, public service, student life and the community that our faculty/student task forces have put forward.

We have established the Broad Institute, jointly with MIT, that will enable us to harness the power of genomics to understand fundamental life processes and conceive of new medical treatments. Others may withdraw from stem cell research, but Harvard will not withdraw. We have inaugurated a stem cell institute that will engage hundreds of researchers in tackling diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and other diseases that shorten the lives of our friends and loved ones. And as befits the mission of this University, the stem cell lines we create are being made available to any researcher or student in this country to pursue their own scientific inquiries.


Harvard’s Initiative Aimed at Economic Barriers to College

Many of you may have heard about a recent initiative in which the University announced that families with incomes of less than $40,000 will no longer be expected to contribute to the cost of attending Harvard for their children. We undertook this initiative because we believe that the University has a profound responsibility to help meet our national challenge of achieving equal opportunity.

And that’s the subject I wish to address today, to direct my remarks to the problem of equal opportunity within the United States and what Harvard, and higher education, can do about it.

Rising Inequality

The evidence is overwhelming that inequality in our nation is increasing. More ominous still, the transmission of inequality from generation to generation may be increasing as well. Median family incomes have increased by 18 percent since 1979 – the incomes of the top one percent of families have increased by 200 percent. Of even greater concern, a child born in the bottom 10 percent of all families by incomes has only a one-third chance of rising above the bottom 20 percent.

More inequality, and more persistence of inequality, mean just this: The American dream is becoming more remote, as the gap between the life prospects of the children of the fortunate and the less fortunate widens.

This is a crucial issue for an institution like ours. Writing a century and a half ago, Horace Mann called education, “beyond all other devices of human origin … the great equalizer of the conditions of men – the balance-wheel of the social machinery.”

Yet education may in fact be adding to the problem. For the linkage between education and economic success has become much stronger, and the differences in access to education across different income groups have increased.

In the 1930s and ’40s almost half of American CEOs and founders of leading businesses had no college degree. Now almost all top business leaders have college degrees, and 70 percent have an MBA, J.D., or other advanced degree.

This is not just a question of credential inflation. Rather it is the result of a cognitive revolution in the workplace itself, as success in every sphere from finance to baseball depends more and more on powers of analysis. Indeed, the return for completing college has more than doubled over the last generation – individuals with a college degree can expect to earn twice as much as those with only a high school education. The return for attending selective colleges is even greater.

Spaces in our nation’s colleges and universities – and particularly in colleges like Harvard – are thus highly prized, but unequally allocated. Consider the facts:

  • In the United States today, a student from the top income quartile is more than six times as likely as a student from the bottom income quartile to graduate with a B.A. within five years of leaving high school.

  • At selective institutions, only 10 percent come from the bottom half of the income scale. In other words, children whose families are in the lower half of the American income distribution are underrepresented by 80 percent. We do a bit better at Harvard with 67 percent under-representation.

  • The data are less clear for professional schools, but it appears that students in these schools have even more affluent parents than those in college.

    To some extent these differences in access reflect differences in preparation and ability. But less than one might suppose. One observer put the fact starkly if undiplomatically – the least bright rich kids are as likely to go to college, and more likely to go to a good college, than the brightest poor kids.

    Getting the Message Out

    Harvard College’s longstanding commitment at Harvard to need-blind admissions and meeting the full need of every admitted student is thus vitally important. But, it is not, by itself, enough.

    That is why we chose, with the low-income initiative, to send the strongest possible message to families across the nation that Harvard is – really and truly – an option for exceptionally talented students whatever their financial means. And it is why we are investing significant additional resources, beginning this summer, in recruiting students from disadvantaged backgrounds using some of the techniques – school visits, personal phone calls, and student-to-student contact – that have worked well for us in recruiting minority students.

    It is also why, in our admissions process, we are making sure that we consider each student’s background and the circumstances under which credentials have been achieved. Students who have taken prep courses for the SATs surely show up more favorably at any given level of ability than other students. And I would venture a guess that the classrooms of Stanley Kaplan and the Princeton Review are among the least economically diverse in America.

    The Importance of the Pipeline

    As part of our new initiative, we have created an intensive summer program on the Harvard campus – the Crimson Summer Academy – for academically talented high school students from disadvantaged backgrounds in the greater Boston area. But there is a limit to what any one institution can accomplish with discrete educational programs.

    In an elitist age, the Duke of Wellington famously observed that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. In this less elitist age, the battle for America’s future will be won or lost in America’s public schools.

    This is a vast national project and a subject of considerable debate. But Harvard, as an educational institution, must do its part. The center of our efforts has been and will continue to be our Graduate School of Education. And we will make the biggest difference if we focus on those things a university can do best.

  • We need to attract talented students to the field. That is why we established the Presidential Scholars program to fund outstanding graduate students in public service fields, including education. I have noted before that we are rightly proud of the fact that any student can attend Harvard College regardless of financial circumstance or need. The same should be true of students who wish to be teachers.

  • We need to support outstanding research. In the late 1960s, faculty at our Education School broke new ground by packing a basic skills curriculum, founded on cognitive research, into a lively television show – “Sesame Street.” More recently, one of our economists has developed powerful evidence showing the interaction between race and socio-economic status in explaining the black-white test gap.

  • We need to engage with the world of practice. This past fall, we announced the Public Education Leadership Project, which teams faculty from our Business and Education Schools in a program that works with top management from 11 of the nation’s urban school systems.

    We should be proud of these efforts. But Harvard’s contribution to improving public education must be intensified, and it must be university-wide. We need to draw on policy analysis to guide change in school systems, legal analysis to challenge inequitable school financing systems, public health studies to tell us what students need to come to school ready to learn, basic business practices to manage schools and school districts.

    Finally, as our College curriculum review moves through its next and more substantive phase, I hope we will bear in mind President Conant’s fundamental insight, embodied in “General Education in a Free Society,” that Harvard’s thinking about a college education, properly conceived, has the potential to shape our thinking about how and what students should learn before college.


    We are all so fortunate to be here, to be part of this community. Let those of us who have benefited so much from what Harvard has to offer work together in the coming years to ensure that our University affirms its promise to advance the vital quest for equal opportunity in America.