Students Recruit Low Income Applicants

When University President Lawrence H. Summers announced last February a new financial aid initiative that eliminates tuition expenses for certain students from low-income families, the only thing he was missing was more of those students.

In an effort to encourage more low-income students to apply and attend Harvard, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 hired six students over the summer to recruit and find students from low-income backgrounds for the new aid initiative.

“I was one of those [low-income] students myself, certainly in the bottom quarter of the income bracket, and, just from a personal point of view, I think this is one of the most exciting initiatives I have in my lifetime here,” Fitzsimmons said.

The aid initiative eliminates tuition for students whose families earn less than $40,000 a year and cuts costs for families that make $40,000 to $60,000. Currently, the initiative, which only increases the College’s annual scholarship budget by $2 million, benefits about 1,000 undergraduates, according to University statistics.

Fitzsimmons said he hopes to increase this number, but he said that “realistically over time it is usually a three- to five-year window” before the admissions office will be able to boast significant changes in the number of low-income families at Harvard.

The student director of the financial aid initiative, Peter M. Brown, said at first the plan was to focus on convincing low-income students to apply, but since the initiative’s announcement in February finding those low-income students has proven more difficult than expected.

“We were having a crap time getting this together,” Brown said. Of the 3,000 students they identified as living in zip codes with a median income of $60,000 or lower, he said the recruiters only reached 1,000 students. And of those, he said only 87 replied that they would qualify for the benefits of the new financial aid initiative.

“We were basically recruiting high-income students,” Brown said.

Part of the difficulty of finding low-income students, Brown said, stemmed from the fact that the recruiters did not require students to disclose their families’ incomes.

Many of the students that the admissions office contacted by e-mail replied that they wanted to apply to Harvard, were legacies and did not need financial aid, Brown said. Other students identified by the zip code system could not be contacted because they did not have listed phone numbers, he added.

“In the future we won’t depend on [calling off the College Board’s list using zip codes] so much,” Brown said. “We will be working more with counselors and we will make a huge recruitment push to identify high schools.”

Questions about income normally have been excluded from the admissions process, Director for Professional Development at the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) Judy Hingle.

Hingle said that at present, there is “no way to make [income status] part of the application...instead, most admissions departments try to look at individual high schools, community groups, and gear-up programs to identify traditionally underprivileged students.

Hingle said that while she and her colleagues at NACAC have heard about the Harvard initiative, nobody from the admissions office has contacted her or her organization about helping to recruit for it.

Fitzsimmons, Summers, Associate Vice President for Higher Education Policy Clayton Spencer and Financial Aid Director Sally Donahue spent about two years formulating the new aid initiative. Fitzsimmons and Summers also conducted about 20 comprehensive studies on admissions and financial aid.

“We wanted to take into account the fact that if you haven’t had the chance to take Kaplan courses, or your parents weren’t using three-syllable words at home, you would still have just as much to offer Harvard and take from Harvard education,” Summers said in an interview last month.

Brown said that Summers, whom he calls the “father of the project,” has maintained a high commitment to the initiative, adding that “we’re having a dinner with him in the next few weeks to discuss progress on the initiative.”

Brown also said Summers recruited Professor of Economics Caroline Hoxby ’88 to help compile statistics on applicants identifying how likely they were to have a low income and how likely they were to apply to Harvard.

“Professor Hoxby’s work [assessing the financial status of students] was immensely helpful,” Brown said.

Hoxby could not be reached for comment yesterday because she was traveling.

—Staff Writer Lauren A. E. Schuker can be reached at schuker@fas.harvard.edu.