Harvard Grad School of Arts and Sciences to Reduce or Pause Admissions in Some Fields


Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences will reduce the number of students it admits for the 2021-22 school year as it continues to grapple with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, Faculty of Arts and Sciences administrators wrote in a letter to faculty Thursday afternoon.

Graduate programs across the nation — including Harvard’s Graduate School of Education doctoral program — have paused admissions in response to pressures on faculty time and university finances wrought by the pandemic. GSAS plans to take what the administrators termed a “more balanced approach to admissions” than peer institutions that chose to pause admissions entirely.

“In recent months, GSAS, SEAS, and FAS leadership have heard from many faculty members who are deeply concerned that Harvard’s research mission and the intellectual life of individual departments would be compromised if a similar decision was announced for GSAS graduate programs,” the FAS deans wrote.

They wrote, however, that they would not accept a full cohort of new students, citing the pandemic’s toll on the University’s finances, reduced access to campus resources, and the forbidding academic job market. New admissions targets will be “conservative,” allowing for currently enrolled students to access additional advising resources.


“Early on, it was clear that this would be a tough admissions season,” the deans wrote. “In addition to our concerns about current students and Harvard’s academic mission, we cannot ignore the toll that the pandemic and its financial ramifications have taken on the University.”

“In numerous fields, too—particularly those heavily dependent on the academic job market—employment outcomes that were already challenging before the COVID-19 crisis are now severely affected,” they added. “We consider it our ethical responsibility not to exacerbate these problems by taking a full cohort of new students: In a few cases, cohorts will be heavily reduced or even paused.”

Thursday’s letter — signed by Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Claudine Gay, GSAS Dean Emma Dench, Social Sciences Dean Lawrence D. Bobo, Arts and Humanities Dean Robin E. Kelsey, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences Dean Francis J. Doyle III, and Sciences Dean Christopher W. Stubbs — argued that the changes could “turn a crisis into an opportunity” by addressing “existing and fundamental concerns about PhD curricula, the well-being of students, and their employment outcomes” at the school.

The administrators wrote that reduced numbers of new students would allow GSAS to “reset” its approach towards admissions. Admissions targets for departments in the long term will be determined based on diversity, advising strength, and student career outcomes in those programs.

“In the past, graduate admissions targets have been grounded in the belief that more is better: that increasing cohort size is the goal,” they wrote. “This has created a less than optimal environment for some of our students, increasing time to degree, decreasing advising effectiveness, and narrowing the evaluation of prospective students’ excellence and potential.”

Dench launched a two-year effort last December to gather data on and reform advising for GSAS students following survey results that she said demonstrated a “troubling” number of students were not satisfied with the advising they received.

GSAS will work with programs over the course of the next year to begin an “extended conversation” regarding curricula, training, and professional development in doctoral programs, the administrators wrote.

“As stated above, this is an opportunity to reset our graduate admissions process, evaluate how we are serving our graduate students, and ensure that we are setting them up for success as students and as alumni, regardless of program or stage in program,” the deans wrote. “By taking these steps, we will work together to preserve Harvard’s excellence and continue fostering the intellectual talent that drives it.”

—Staff writer James S. Bikales can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jamepdx.

—Staff writer Kevin R. Chen can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @kchenx.