Democratizing Harvard

It has been nearly 75 years since Harvard undertook a new series of ambitious outreach efforts to encourage talented students from all backgrounds to come to Harvard. With a record 30,000 applicants to Harvard this year, it is clear that we have made much progress. Today, people across America, regardless of their gender, ethnicity, or economic circumstances realize that Harvard is within reach. Harvard has been in the forefront as higher education has opened its doors, and America now has a much greater chance of playing a leadership role in the world for generations to come.

The democratization of Harvard goes back to its founding and Anne Radcliffe’s gift of Harvard’s first scholarship. Over the centuries, other efforts followed, with increased financial aid and more effective recruiting. With the commencement of the National Scholarship Program announced at Harvard’s Tercentenary celebration in 1936, President James B. Conant, class of 1914, committed Harvard to broaden such efforts in ways not imagined previously.

This effort was also driven by half a century of work by the Admissions Office to identify, recruit, and admit talented students of all backgrounds. Among the first National Scholars was Fred L. Glimp ’50, a proud Idaho native, whose visionary leadership as Dean of Admissions from 1960-1967 provided considerable momentum for this work. Chase N. Peterson ’52 from the state of Utah served as dean from 1967-1972 and led minority recruitment to new heights. And L. Fred Jewett ’57 from Taunton, Mass. ushered in the current era, urging Harvard to reach out to all talented students, including those from the rural areas that produced Glimp and Peterson.

The structure they put in place has been continually adapted to new opportunities, and it supports our work today. Now 12,000 Harvard alumnae and alumni work throughout the world to encourage students to consider Harvard, and they interview applicants to assist the Admissions Office in selecting each year’s entering class. Our modern tools include the Internet and other technological innovations.

Today’s financial-aid program would astonish previous generations of Harvard alumnae and alumni. Over the past six years, the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative has led to a 33 percent increase in the number of students at Harvard from families with incomes less than $80,000 per year. More middle-income students are also applying to Harvard now: For 90 percent of the American population, Harvard is no more expensive—and, in many cases, is less expensive—than flagship public universities. This is a powerful message about the accessibility and affordability of today’s Harvard.

Recognizing that this message has never been more important to Harvard and to our society than it is in today’s difficult economy, President Drew G. Faust, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Michael D. Smith, and Dean of the College Evelynn M. Hammonds reaffirmed their unwavering commitment to our strong financial-aid program without hesitation even during the most challenging early days of the financial downturn. While the current generation of Harvard students will be forever grateful for their leadership, we will see even larger benefits in the years ahead as this new financial-aid program slowly but surely changes long-held views that Harvard and institutions like it are accessible only to the already-privileged. Such fundamental changes in public perceptions of institutions often take a generation or more.

People ask why Harvard continues to recruit despite having so many applications. We do so because many talented students remain unaware of their opportunities. Among the many structural barriers to opportunity is an average student-to-counselor ratio in our nation’s public schools of 500 to one, in some states nearly 1,000 to one. Because these high-school counselors are overworked and under-resourced, it often falls to us to convey the message of accessibility and affordability that has led to the new Harvard.

Our efforts to open Harvard’s doors have succeeded. In the mid-1960s, Harvard had a four-to-one male-to-female ratio, fewer than half the number of scholarship students we enroll today, and only a sprinkling of minority and international students. To return to the past by limiting our recruitment efforts would relegate Harvard to a greatly diminished role in developing the talents of all of our citizens.

Harvard has benefited throughout its history from many initiatives designed to democratize its student body. The unparalleled excellence of today’s students can be maintained only by vigorous, imaginative, and sustained efforts. If Harvard is to remain a national and world leader, we must continue to seek new ways to find talent in all its forms. We hope our graduating seniors will join us in this mission wherever they go and whatever they do in the years ahead.

Sarah C. Donahue is the Director of Financial Aid at Harvard College. William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 is the Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Harvard College. Marlyn E. McGrath ’70-’73 is the Director of Admissions at Harvard College.