In Face of Reagan Cuts, Low-Income Admissions Drop

Harvard had to dig deeper into its waiting list in 1982 than it had in a decade.

Despite a years-long push to increase the diversity—economic and otherwise—of incoming classes, admissions and financial aid officials were blind-sided when, in early 1982, the Reagan Administration announced a plan to cut more than $2 billion in federal support for higher education financial aid.

Harvard, with its deep pockets, was luckier than most other universities. The Faculty of Arts and Sciences was able to draw on its “unrestricted funds” to allocate $5 million for financial aid in 1982, and the aid offered to students was largely unaffected by the Reagan cuts.

But the damage was done; students from lower-income families—who had limited access to college counselors—were left with misperceptions about their ability to afford a Harvard education.

“The signaling of proposed and actual cuts in federal funding really hurt our ability to diversify the class as quickly as we would have liked,” Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67—who was serving as acting dean in 1982—says. “We were frankly quite concerned that this kind of signaling could discourage students from low- and moderate-income backgrounds from applying to colleges at all, especially private colleges and universities.”

The yield on African Americans plunged between 1981 and 1982, and the percentage of matriculating students whose fathers had not attended college dropped for the third year in a row.

“The concern that we all had was that we were rapidly headed to having a higher education system that would be much more of the ‘haves’ than the ‘have-nots,’” Fitzsimmons says.

‘BACK TO THE DRAWING BOARD’

Seamus P. Malin ’62, who served as Harvard’s director of financial aid in the late sixties and seventies, said that after Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 assassination, there had been a “continuum of progress” throughout the 1970s in increasing ethnic and socioeconomic diversity on college campuses.

Malin added that while Harvard had always had a “pretty good” commitment to socioeconomic diversity among students from the Boston area, the University embraced a more national focus during the seventies.

“We all assumed that the graphs would continue to go in that upward direction,” says Malin, who stepped in as acting director of financial aid in 1982 after leaving the position a few years earlier. “But we got blind-sided by the federal government making these announcements that hit news wires across the country.”

Malin says that the broadcasts left families with misperceptions about universities like Harvard, which in fact had both the philosophical commitment and the funding to continue supporting low- and moderate-income students.

And Fitzsimmons says that lower-income families were the most likely to harbor these misperceptions.

“If people have to read in the newspaper or hear on television that there are proposed or actual cuts in financial aid, what it tends to do is discourage low- and moderate-income students disproportionately because they often don’t have the [college] counselors,” he said. “Those kinds of things will affect students of modest means to a much greater extent.”

Malin says that the Admissions Office realized in 1982 that it was going to have to work “really hard” to offset the negative reaction that students and parents heard all around them.

“It was a discouraging time,” Malin says. “When we saw this ground being pulled out from under the kids, it was like we were back to the drawing board again.”

AN ALARMING DECLINE

In April 1982—before Harvard learned which of the students accepted to the Class of 1986 would actually matriculate—Fitzsimmons told The Crimson that the 1982 yield could drop because of national economic pressures or rise because some competing colleges had not reaffirmed aid-blind admissions, as Harvard had.

When the numbers came in, the yield was down; Harvard accepted approximately 60 wait-listed applicants to bring the Class of 1986 to its desired size of 1600.

Nearly 26 percent of the students that entered Harvard in 1979 came from homes in which the father had not gone to college. That figure dropped to 21 percent in 1980, 19 percent in 1981, and a little over 16 percent in 1982, Fitzsimmons’s 1982 annual report revealed.

“The continued decline in the number of students whose parents had not attended college was a pretty clear sign that something was happening in terms of social class,” Fitzsimmons says. “When you have that kind of decline in such a short period of time, it is quite alarming.”

The yield on accepted African American students also dropped significantly from 69 percent in 1981 to 57 percent in 1982.

In a survey of admitted students who did not enroll in Harvard in 1982, 44 percent of African Americans questioned indicated that finances were among the primary reasons they chose not to come.

“There was certainly a lot of impressionistic evidence that the yield was affected by students’ and families’ fears,” Fitzsimmons says. “All of this was part of the same pattern.”

THE ‘ROBIN HOOD APPROACH’

Around the country, schools found themselves facing the difficult choice of cutting their financial aid offerings or finding new sources of funds.

In February of 1982, Wesleyan became the first major university to change its aid policy because of the Reagan cuts; the school’s trustees voted to adopt a policy of rejecting some applicants who could not pay full tuition.

Dartmouth adopted this policy one month later.

Other universities took an approach similar to Harvard’s, although it was harder in some cases for them to come up with the required funding.

Georgetown University, for example, added a special charge of $200 per student to its tuition in 1982 specifically to make up for the loss of federal funding, according to Charles A. Deacon, who was and still is Georgetown’s dean of undergraduate admissions.

Deacon said in an interview last week that colleges referred to this tactic as the “Robin Hood approach”—taking more from the rich to give to the poor.

“That put real pressure on the middle class,” he says. “What you saw was a shrinking percentage of middle-class kids at these top universities.”

Lee Stetson, who was the dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania in 1982 and remains in the position today, said that his university also had to dip into its own budget in order to preserve its aid-blind admissions policy.

“What it tells you is that we can never let up because government policies change,” Stetson says. “We can’t depend on the vagaries of Congressional decisions” for funding, he says.

‘NIGHT AND DAY’

Since 1982, Harvard has dramatically improved both its financial aid packages and its recruitment strategies.

The University’s most recent enhancement—the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative—waives the parental contribution to tuition for families earning less than $60,000 a year.

The initiative also reduces the contributions expected of families with annual incomes between $60,000 and $80,000.

“We are sending a really clear, strong, and simple message to talented students worldwide that finances should not be a barrier,” Financial Aid Director Sally C. Donahue says.

This expansion of financial aid at Harvard over the past few years has its roots in discussions on diversity that were taking place amidst the funding challenges of 1982, according to Fitzsimmons.

“In many respects, the changes we’ve made recently—both for low-income students and for all students on financial aid—really come out of a set of concerns that we had been talking about in the late seventies and early eighties,” Fitzsimmons says.

Since 1982, the College’s recruiting efforts have also increased exponentially, according to Fitzsimmons.

“It’s like night and day,” he says.

Harvard has begun using the telephone, e-mail, and the Internet to foster more personal communication with low- and middle-income prospective students.

Partially as a result of these efforts, the number of students on financial aid has increased from 39 percent to nearly 70 percent over the past 25 years.

And the number of minority students admitted to Harvard has nearly doubled from 21 percent in 1982 to close to 40 percent today.

But despite Harvard’s success in increasing diversity on campus, administrators say that strengthened federal support for higher education remains important both at Harvard and nationwide.

“Federal dollars have not kept pace with the cost of education at all,” Donahue says. “We need to reach out to the American public and convince them that investing in higher education with federal financial aid dollars and institutional dollars is ultimately good for our country and society.”

—Staff writer Johannah S. Cornblatt can be reached at jcornbl@fas.harvard.edu.