Systems of Choice


A discussion on student agency in house lottery.

The current generation of Harvard college students is one that grew up with the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling. Whether most Harvard students consider themselves fond of the books, one cannot deny that in the past 10 years or so, Harvard as a college has often been compared to aspects of the stories. It might be the comparison of Annenberg Hall to the Great Hall. In fact, just heard in the yard on Monday was a conversation between a touring millennial couple: the woman pointed to Annenberg in the distance and said, “Look, that’s the big dining hall for students!” To which the man responded, “What – do they have floating pumpkins, too?” Other than the induced chuckle of yours truly, the quip received no further discussion or questioning – or at least none I could divine on my hurried way to class.Perhaps equally as prevalent among comparisons of Harvard to Hogwarts, is the house system. This system is one in which a student’s house becomes more than just his or her residential dwelling, but a source of pride, a pool of resources, and a network of peers to call on in times of need. However, as it stands today, the Harvard house system holds one major quality in great contrast to that of our beloved magical school: at Hogwarts, students may choose their houses.

Nay – you say – the Sorting Hat does the choosing and the sorting for the students. Actually, I think you will find (after an examination of the text) that the seventh book includes the line, “The Sorting Hat takes your choice into account.” The magic of the current Housing Lottery Algorithm does no such thing.
In the early days of the Housing systems, after the students spread from the yard to other Harvard owned buildings in Cambridge, students would have to go through House Master interviews in order to be hand selected for each house. Student agency and empowerment became a higher priority by the 1970s and this led to students ranking their top choices of houses. Students even developed strategies to ensure their placement in a specific house or to safeguard against placement in an undesirable neighborhood. At the time, that neighborhood was the Radcliffe Quadrangle.

In 1975, the joint Harvard-Radcliffe admissions office began to admit female and male students. In 1977, an agreement was signed by Harvard and Radcliffe outlining their new education system and partnership. It is at this point that Quad houses became a more prominent part of the housing system. Over 20 years later in 1999, Radcliffe College and Harvard University finally officially merge. The question of whether these spaces have been perfectly integrated since then is a major source of tension in the house lotteries.
Adams House Master Sean Palfrey ’67 has seen Harvard transition through many stages. According to him, houses had “individual characters” that were created by both the “applications of the students and the traditions of the masters,” before randomization. Even though these characters were “defined over decades”, Palfrey points out that the system “fostered inequality.” This inequality was met with a call for change and a leveling of the playing field. The administration thus moved to a completely random lottery under the leadership of (then) Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 in 1996.

What has this randomization accomplished? Each house is now viewed as a microcosm of the college in its constitution, and every student is equally defenseless in the face of an undiscriminating lottery algorithm. Perhaps something else is lost, though, in the process.
In many other facets of Harvard college life, students have deeply rooted agency. Harvard celebrates the intelligence and maturity of its students — encourages exploration and self-discovery at every opportunity.  Harvard celebrates the ability of its students to choose their own courses through shopping period, special concentrations, one-on-one seminars, and specialized fields of study. Students are free to join almost any conceivable interest group or community. Even the Undergraduate Council allocates resources to different student groups that petition for grants. Why then, is there no student choice in residences? According to Ms. Carina Myteveli of the Office of Student Life, the “lottery is designed to ensure impartial assignment of students to Houses and has done so successfully.”

The need for “impartial assignment” points to an unequal market in Harvard housing. Is this due to the vestiges of Harvard-Radcliffe disunion, or are there other pieces at play? Paternalism seems to be the solution the administration has chosen to combat whatever issues they perceive – be it lack of diversity or favoritism among the houses. Many alumni and others over the years have criticized this paternalism of the College and wondered at the loss of self-selection and student agency. Even previous Associate Professors of Economics Kala Krishna and Susan M. Collins seemed surprised in concluding, “students appear to behave remarkably rationally” when it comes to housing, in a paper they published in the late 1980s. The economics paper was titled, “The Harvard Housing Lottery: Rationality and Reform.” Any system that procures tears on Housing Day may be in need of reform. Under this system, we have some students dreading assignment to the Quad and others transferring from the River to the Quad a year later.

But what can be done to reform this system? Multiple ideas have been discussed. Of course, there is the return to self-selection and complete student agency – a move that would require more faith in its students than the administration seems to have. This free market ideal has many opponents. One of which is a plan that would rid of us Housing Day all together. According to House Master Sean Palfrey, there is ongoing support for a system of assigning upperclassmen houses along with the freshmen residences starting freshmen year – similarly to Yale’s system of housing.
Whether you abhor paternalism, spit on self-selection, or the idea of being compared to Yale leaves a bad taste in your mouth, there seems to be no easy answer. The tensions that surround Harvard Housing are ones that have persisted for decades and will not be resolved overnight. In the meantime, students continue to enjoy the festivities of Housing Day not because of an arbitrary assignment to some building, but because of the experiences and friendship it creates among blockmates, housemates, and strangers alike. Happy Housing Day, Harvard!

Caroline C. Cronin ’18 ( wishes all the freshmen good luck – because luck of the draw is pretty much all you can hope for in this lottery.