New Admissions Outreach Initiative Seeks To Encourage Low-Income College Applicants

UPDATED: Oct. 24, 2013, at 8:25 p.m.

The Office of Admissions and Financial Aid will launch a new digitally driven outreach initiative this fall in an effort to encourage low-income students to apply to Harvard and other selective institutions of higher education, the College announced in a press release Thursday.

The undertaking, called the Harvard College Connection, will seek to provide students with information about their options for college and financial aid by emphasizing social media and other online communications methods.

Harvard will hire staff members and launch a website to help implement the initiative, which will work in tandem with Harvard’s existing efforts to recruit students of diverse economic backgrounds. Harvard admissions officers have traditionally sent admission information via mail and traveled to cities nationwide to meet with potential applicants.

“To ensure that talented low-income students understand their opportunities, we need to meet them where they are,” Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 said in the press release. “To date, that has meant literally traveling to meet them in cities and towns across the nation. Going forward, we will meet them both in person and online.”

Thursday’s announcement comes several days after the Admissions Office released a 16-minute video that, according to the YouTube description, lets viewers “experience undergraduate life at Harvard through the people who know it and love it.”

This wide integration of social media and web-based platforms with traditional outreach is “of the moment and of the future,” said Bari Norman, president of New York City-based college counseling firm Expert Admissions.

“I do think that young people are more tech savvy and more plugged in,” Norman said. “I don’t know if across the board or across income levels that it’s true or still the same.”

Anna Ivey, founder of the college admissions consulting firm Ivey Consulting, said she believes the Harvard Connection will help solve problems of access for high-achieving low-income students, even if it does not solve all problems.

“I think it’s going to be much easier to connect with them and reach them through social media or on Facebook or Instagram than at the college fair,” Ivey said.

“The financial aid resources that Harvard has already put into play make a big difference, but that assumes that low-income kids know to approach Harvard in the first place,” Ivey said. “Often, nobody in their orbit has ever even gone to college, let alone Harvard, so it's really quite brilliant to use social media to reach them. Because their real worlds may not be nudging towards college, but many of them do have lives online. Why not meet them there, and make the experience as personalized as possible?”

Harvard Chief Digital Officer Perry S. Hewitt ’87-’88, who will work on the Harvard College Connection initiative, said in the press release that there is still “much to learn” about harnessing social media’s potential.

“Certain media may work better with some students than others—and we may also find that some ‘old-fashioned’ outreach such as mail, telephone calls, and travel is more effective—or can be enhanced by new approaches,” she said.

Christopher N. Avery ’88, a Kennedy School professor who is working on the project, said in the press release that the initiative is a “natural way” to expand Harvard’s existing financial aid efforts.

“I am particularly pleased that the Harvard College Connection will encourage students to apply to selective colleges in general, and not just to Harvard. If Harvard College Connection is successful, it could change the lives of many talented students across the country,” Avery said.

A paper co-authored by Avery and published by the National Bureau of Economic Research this past spring found that an overwhelming majority of very high-achieving, low-income high school students choose not to apply to the nation’s most selective colleges every year.

—Staff writer Zohra D. Yaqhubi can be reached at zohra.yaqhubi@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter at @zohradyaqhubi.

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