Aid May Sway Harvard Hopefuls

In the last month, Princeton, Stanford and Yale Universities have announced huge increases in financial aid, making a pitch for the pocket-books of America's top high school students.

But who's buying?

If the middle-class students these schools are trying to attract take the bait, the results might be visible on Harvard Yard--in a shrinking middle-class presence among Harvard's student body in the years to come.

Linda J. Sax of the Higher Education Institute predicts that "all things held equal, a middle income student [will] in all likelihood be drawn away" from Harvard in the face of competitive offers from other schools.

In a survey of guidance counselors around the country, many agreed with Sax, saying Harvard could lose middle-class students to schools offering more aid.


A substantial number, however, said Harvard is insulated by its name value and a tradition of generosity and has no reason to worry about losing students in the near future.

"Left in the Dust"

Ann M. Sandoval, a college counselor at Detroit Country Day School, says many middle-class students fall into a "gray area" in traditional systems of calculating aid.

"Those students who have very high need are usually accommodated by traditional aid programs, but most of the time it's the middle-income students who have the most problems," Sandoval said.

Sandoval says many of these families have two incomes but multiple children near college age, meaning that aid systems like Harvard's, looking primarily at income and assets, exaggerate their ability to pay.

"The federal government says they have the money to pay, but it's difficult for families to take that kind of charge without a big impact on their daily lives," she adds. "And I'm not talking about selling the yacht, but really big sacrifices."

She says that last school year one student accepted to Harvard's class of 2001 instead took a full scholarship to attend the University of Michigan, opting notto endanger her siblings' chances of paying forcollege.

"She said `I know that if I want [to go toHarvard] bad enough, my family can figure out someway to do it, but what would my little brotherhave to sacrifice?'" Sandoval said.

Counselors from Tennessee to Texas to New YorkCity suburbs agreed, saying that the middle classoften loses out in traditional aid systems-- "leftin the dust" in one counselor's words.

Stanford, Yale and Princeton have followedthese traditional policies to a decrease in middleclass enrollment in recent years--a slippage whichall three say caused their changes in aid policy.

Their new plans attempt to tackle the problemby adjusting the amount of family assets used incalculating the family's ability to pay,decreasing expected family contribution for manyfamilies in middle income brackets.

Harvard has made no formal changes to itscurrent policy, with President Neil L. Rudenstinepledging to keep the University's offers "withinshouting distance" of its competitors on acase-by-case basis.

In Walnut Creek, Calif., Los Lomas High Schoolcounselor Carolyn H. Procunier says students andtheir parents have already begun to take notice ofPrinceton, Yale and Stanford's reforms.

"Parents...are really educated and notice thesechanges," she said. "[Now] they feel like theyhave more of a chance than in the past...atPrinceton definitely."

In Knoxville, Tenn., guidance counselor BillieM. Chance says she and other counselors areencouraging students to apply to schools whichbefore this year they would not have evenconsidered because of cost.

Chance was asked if she was encouragingstudents to apply to Harvard as well as itsnow-reformed competitors.

"Probably just Princeton, Yale and Stanford,"she responded.

At the University School of Nashville, Directorof College Counseling Janet K. Schneider says moregenerosity makes schools like Princeton much moreattractive.

"If [one of my students] gets into Harvard andthey get into Princeton, and Princeton gives thema better package, they're going to go toPrinceton," Schneider says. "It won't haveanything to do with my counseling. It'll just becommon sense."

Counselors say Stanford's announcement that itwill use outside scholarships to erase loans andwork-study expectations is an attractiveimprovement.

Under policies like Harvard's, at least part ofany outside scholarships goes to reduce outrightgrants from the University.

"Some of our students applied to 30 differentoutside scholarships," says Gail A. Reilly, acounselor at Brooklyn's Technical High School.

"[Stanford's] new policies definitely would bea big plus for them."

Sandoval says, by amending its policies to bemore generous to the middle class, Harvard couldgive more qualified students the ability toattend.

"If Harvard suddenly announced moreflexibility, it wouldn't get a flood of newapplicants, because these people apply alreadyanyway," she says. "A change in policies wouldjust allow more people to say `yes.'"

What's in a Name?

Many counselors, however, feel that financialaid changes elsewhere should be no cause forconcern in Cambridge.

"I don't think [the changes are] going tomatter. Students who are considering Harvardalready known how much it's going to cost," saysRuth B. Fischer of Germantown High School inTennessee.

"If one of my kids gets in to Harvard, they'regoing to go to Harvard no matter what," Fischeradds.

Linda J. DeVries of Wilson High School inPortland says she has found that students drivenenough to get themselves admitted to Harvard arewilling to make the sacrifices necessary to payfor a Harvard education.

"I think those students who have the academicrecord and the outside activities--the backgroundto make them Harvard-acceptable--would find a wayto get there if that's what they want to do,"DeVries says.

At Paideia High School in Atlanta, Director ofCollege Counseling Virginia L. Rose said Harvardoften relies on its reputation.

"I think what Harvard has in its favor is thatit's Harvard, but I don't think Harvard wants tosay that," Rose says.

Other counselors say in addition to the Harvardname, the University's traditional aid policieshave usually been generous enough to meet theneeds of the middle class.

"My students have never expressed anyunwillingness on Harvard's part to award financialaid," says Dean Strassburger, college counselor atLincoln Park High School in Chicago.

"I applaud what they've done at Yale andPrinceton," he says. "But Harvard may come closeto that anyway."

Eva Turner, director of college counseling atthe Gilman School in Baltimore, said Harvard hasestablished a reputation for generosity whichPrinceton, Stanford and Yale's changes areunlikely to erode in the near future.

"We have found that when it comes to Harvardapplicants, the issue of money is not a primaryconsideration," she said. "Harvard has been verygenerous."

Ultimately, Rose says, college counselors donot concern themselves with financial advice asmuch as they do with advice on a particularschool's suitability for a student in terms ofacademics and other related factors.

"I would absolutely not counsel them away fromHarvard for financial reasons," Rose says. "Thatwould end up being a family decision based on astudent's ability to take on debt."

Standing Pat

University officials have pledged to studyHarvard's aid policies closely, but for the momentare sticking by their current plan.

While Jeremy R. Knowles, dean of the Faculty ofArts and Sciences, would not specifically commenton the possibility of students being drawn awayfrom Harvard, he did reaffirm Harvard's statedpolicy of offering competitive aid.

Associate Provost Dennis Thompson says theUniversity is "not going to let financial aidoffers from other institutions be the reason thatsomebody decides not to [come to Harvard]."

But while administrators make policy inCambridge, the burden of reassuring the guidancecounselors of America usually falls to the Officeof Admissions.

In that office, Director of Admissions MarlynMcGrath Lewis '70 says her office has beenfielding calls since Princeton's announcement overa month ago.

"A number of counselors have talked to me andasked me if I'm aware of these changes, and I amsure that we are as ready as ever to meet thecosts," Lewis says.

James M. Cocola, Tara L. Colon, William B.Decherd, Rosalind S. Helderman, Jenny E. Heller,Jie Li, Chris H. Kwak, Andrew K. Mandel, BarbaraE. Martinez, Laura E. Rosenbaum, Sadie H. Sanchezand Alexandra M. Silva contributed to thereporting of this article.CrimsonRoss J. Fleischman

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