THE STATISTICS released last week on applicants to the Class of 1986 are more upsetting than startling. Admissions Office figures showed that the number of applicants whose parents didn't attend college dropped by 570 students from last year,--showing that the percentage of "non-affluent" applicants may have fallen off sharply. Those trends suggest ominously that the economic and racial diversity Harvard so rightly prized could prove more elusive than ever in years to come.
Equally disturbing, restoring the accessibility of a Harvard education seems largely out of the College's contro' Officials here blame much of the drop on the President's financial aid cuts; those reductions have not only reduced students' financial assets, but have also bred dangerous misconceptions about the availability of a Harvard degree.
Hearing how other colleges have scrapped their aid-blind admissions policies, it seems that working-class students have taken to assuming that elite colleges like Harvard are financially off-limits to them. Cutbacks in funding for high school guidance counselors have certainly helped propagate that ignorance. The tragedy is that many reach that judgment without attending the University's informational sessions on admissions. Those meetings would tell them that Harvard, unlike so many fiscally strapped schools, remains committed to an aid-blind admissions policy, despite the inroads of the Reagan cuts and inflation.
Higher education's painfully built-up reputation as a process offering an unusual degree of equal access to all classes has thus been dealt a severe philosophical blow. And as the cuts and rising costs force school after school to abandon publicly their idealistic aid-blind policies, a vicious cycle of cuts and retrenchment is fueled.
Other schools' abandonment of such financial aid programs has taken place quietly. Just recently, investigative efforts by Northwestern University's student government discovered that that institution had rejected several thousand applicants because they could not pay tuition--well before announcing its abandonment of aid-blind admissions.
Short of making financial information unavailable to admissions committee, there seems no way to keep colleges--especially those with fixed budgets--from using aid as a criterion to settle hard cases. We can only reiterate our hope that Harvard has yet to reach this crisis point. The College's recent allocation of an additional $100,000 in Faculty funds allocated to the admissions and financial aid budget to maintain aid-blind admissions offer much encouragement.
But such internal adjustments will be not be enough; word of such steps cannot be counted upon to percolate through to the students and parents who need most to be reassured of Harvard's accessibility. The Admissions Office must aggressively publicize its aid-blind policy--by recruiting harder, by printing better leaflets, and by telling students more loudly that they can depend on Harvard's support.
We wish such publicity efforts and genuine good intentions could prevent the coming crisis in college admissions; at best, however, they can only be counted on to make a terrible situation slightly less painful. They cannot restore the confidence that the Administration's ruthless budget cuts have destroyed. So it is all the more crucial that students, faculty, and administrators redouble their efforts on the legislative front, too--by rallying, voting, or lobbying Congress--in the hope of that Congress will be forced to turn against Reagan and repair some of the damage it has already done.