Beginning last March, all Harvard courses moved to an exclusively online format, with the spring 2020 semester transitioning to an emergency satisfactory-unsatisfactory grading system.
That shift in campus life followed several other notable changes during the Class of 2021’s time at Harvard, including the elimination of the passing period known as “Harvard Time” in fall 2018 and the implementation of a new General Education system, which went into effect a year later.
The College’s sanctions on single-gender social organizations, first applied to the Class of 2021, sparked a pair of state and federal lawsuits against the University. Last summer, however, Harvard dropped the controversial policy as a result of a Supreme Court decision on sex discrimination that the College claimed would legally prevent continued enforcement of the sanctions.
The past year also marked the completion of Harvard’s new Science and Engineering Complex in Allston after five years of construction. The COVID-19 pandemic delayed the opening of the roughly $1 billion engineering campus; the SEC will fully open to students in fall 2021.
Finally, the renovation of Adams House — which was also put on hold due to the city-wide construction moratorium in the thick of the pandemic — completed its first phase this spring. And ten new faculty deans joined Cabot, Eliot, Kirkland, Quincy, and Winthrop Houses in the middle of this strange year.
As in previous years, academics were a top priority for the senior class. About 92 percent of survey respondents said they found academics to be “very important” or “important.” Survey respondents reported spending an average 35.6 hours per week on coursework. Both numbers have remained roughly the same over the past two years. The most popular concentrations among seniors were Computer Science and Economics, by a wide margin, followed by Social Studies, Government, and Applied Mathematics.
A plurality of seniors — 38 percent — concentrated in the Social Sciences. 25 percent of the graduating class concentrated in the Sciences, 20 percent in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and 17 percent in Arts and Humanities.
Seventy-nine percent of the seniors surveyed reported being “very satisfied” or “somewhat satisfied” with their concentration.
The graduating class felt less favorably toward the new General Education program than the Class of 2020, with only 50 percent of respondents saying they were “very satisfied” or “somewhat satisfied.” Thirty-one percent of seniors reported some level of dissatisfaction with General Education — ten percentage points more than last year.
Surveyed seniors were split on how the pandemic affected the difficulty of their coursework: 29 percent said it made academics more difficult, 35 percent said it made things less difficult, and 36 percent said the difficulty didn’t change.
Fifty-six percent of the graduating class said they wrote a senior thesis.
Following a steady rise over the past several years, grade point averages saw an overall increase once again, with almost two-thirds of seniors — 64 percent — reporting a GPA of 3.8 or higher, compared to 54 percent last year. Concerns about grade inflation have floated among faculty since at least December 2013, when administrators revealed that the median grade at the College was an A- and the most commonly awarded grade was an A. This year, The Crimson’s survey of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences found that nearly 70 percent of faculty respondents saw grade inflation as a “prevalent” issue in their departments.
Eighty percent of respondents reported a GPA of 3.7 or higher. According to the College’s grading system, an A- corresponds to a 3.67.
The most commonly reported GPA — rounded to one decimal place — was a 3.9, selected by 30 percent of respondents. Twelve percent of respondents reported finishing college with a GPA closest to 4.0, compared to roughly 9 percent last year.
GPAs tended to increase alongside respondents’ family income. Of seniors with a combined parental income less than $80,000, 23 percent reported a GPA of 3.9 or higher, compared to more than 47 percent of students whose parents earned above $80,000.
Seventy-one percent of seniors graduating with Advanced Standing, a program that allowed students to graduate early or earn a master’s degree in four years, had a GPA of at least 3.9, compared to only 39 percent of other seniors. Courses counted for graduate credit do not factor into undergraduate GPA for students pursuing Advanced Standing with a fourth year master’s degree.
After the transition to online courses last March, instructors made significant changes to their assessment formats. In some courses, closed-book exams were made open-note and open-book. In others, exams were monitored through online proctoring systems, with webcams allowing teaching fellows to view students’ workspaces. Despite the departure from in-person learning, however, reported rates of cheating among the Class of 2021 remained roughly consistent with previous years: Twenty-two percent of respondents said they had cheated in an academic context while at Harvard. Two percent of respondents said that they had appeared before either the Administrative Board or the Honor Council for a disciplinary issue.
Of the seniors who said they cheated, 83 percent said they did so on a problem set or regular homework assignment; 47 percent said they did so on a paper, take-home exam, or project; and 25 percent said they did so on an in-class exam.
Nearly 19 percent of students who reported a 4.0 GPA said they had cheated while at Harvard. Cheating rates were not significantly correlated with GPA.
As in previous years, survey respondents tended to overestimate the percentage of their classmates who cheated. Members of the Class of 2021 said they thought 54 percent of seniors had cheated on a problem set or homework assignment, on average.
Extracurriculars and Varsity Sports
On the heels of the pandemic, many extracurricular and athletic activities found themselves derailed or put on hold last year. Student groups adopted new platforms and meeting formats to get around virtual limitations. The Ivy League cancelled sports seasons in winter 2020 and once again in spring 2021. But members of the Class of 2021 continued to strongly value extracurriculars, with 80 percent of respondents reporting that extracurriculars were “very important” or “important” to their time at Harvard. Seniors said they spent an average of 17 hours per week on extracurricular activities, a figure similar to previous years.
Twelve percent of respondents said they played a varsity sport at Harvard. Of those students, 54 percent said they had been recruited to play for the Crimson.
Sixty-five percent of athletes said they played their sport throughout all four years of college, while roughly 31 percent said they quit before the end of their senior season.
In a slight increase from last year, 35 percent of respondents said that paid employment was either “very important” or “important” to their time at Harvard. On average, those who pursued paid employment said they worked 10 hours a week.
House and Social Life
When the pandemic hit Cambridge last March, Harvard administrators gave undergraduates just five days to evacuate campus. In July, the University announced that only the freshman class would be invited to live on-campus in the fall, while sophomores, juniors, and seniors could petition for campus housing. Most seniors, therefore, did not get a chance to return to campus until this spring, when the Class of 2021 was prioritized for campus housing.
Only 48 percent of survey respondents lived in Harvard dorms this spring, and even fewer — about 12 percent — lived on campus in fall and in spring 2020. Seventy-nine percent of seniors said they were “very satisfied” or “somewhat satisfied” with their living arrangements: eight percentage points lower than last year’s satisfaction rate. Harvard is currently renovating Adams House as part of an over $1 billion endeavor to revamp the Houses.
Pforzheimer House took the prize for highest satisfaction among residents, with 91 percent of residents saying they were “very satisfied” or “somewhat satisfied.” Leverett House received the lowest satisfaction rate, with only 66 percent of residents reporting some degree of satisfaction.
Seventy-nine percent of respondents said they considered social life to be “very important” or “important” to their college experience; the senior class spent 18 hours a week on average on their social life. Both numbers are slightly lower — by three percentage points and two hours per week, respectively — than last year. About half the senior class said that the pandemic made social life more important to them, and 31 percent said social life became less important.
About 25 percent of respondents said they belonged to a final club, sorority, fraternity, or other off-campus social organization. Students whose parents earned higher incomes were more likely to belong to these social groups: out of the respondents who said they were a member of at least one of these groups, 41 percent had parents who earned $500,000 or over.