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When hearts at Harvard bleed for the poor, the disadvantaged, the underprivileged or whatever euphemism we prefer, we almost always do so as outsiders. Most of us are personally unaffected by the suffering we describe in our discussions of welfare, public housing and the unemployed, and yet we are still moved to compassion, reflection and sometimes action. If diversity is valuable because it expands our understanding of ourselves and the world we inhabit, then students from low-income backgrounds have as much to offer Harvard as other minority groups. Although the admissions office insists that less-affluent students are vigorously recruited, evidence on the grounds suggests that we could do much better.
Speaking with students who did not grow up in the suburban, middle class backgrounds so common here, several were eager to describe the unique perspective they bring to Harvard. Lauren M. Goins ’04 from New Orleans, Louisiana offered an example of the experiences she has shared with classmates in her health policy section. “We talked about people who are uninsured,” she said. “But I spent all my life uninsured. I could never visit a doctor, I had to go to the emergency room.”
Ansel A. Payne ’04 from Roane County, West Virginia said his childhood in rural Appalachia gave him a distinctive understanding on a history of exploitation rarely addressed in courses here. The contrast between perceptions of the poor at Harvard and their day-to-day reality was striking to Maggie J. Morgan ’04 when she arrived here from Tupelo, Mississippi. “People here need a broader perspective of how others actually live. Many think poor people are just some abstract group that needs to be reformed,” she said.
Exactly how many students from outside the middle and upper classes are here at Harvard to broaden our perspective? The admissions office refuses to release socioeconomic data on the student body, and without their cooperation, a detailed statistical analysis is simply not possible. But by digging through the scraps of information already available, one can derive an estimate of the number of undergraduates from low-income families. A bar graph included in a financial aid flyer displays the number of students who receive Harvard grants broken down by income. Since one would hope that nearly all low-income students receive those grants, the chart serves as a ready-made approximation of their numbers.
According to that measure, less than four percent of Harvard undergraduates live below the poverty line as compared to nearly 12 percent of all Americans. The gulf is much wider in what one might call the lower-middle class. While more than 40 percent of families nationwide earn under $40,000, fewer than 10 percent of Harvard students come from such families.
These vast disparities do not themselves imply that we could do more to recruit qualified low-income candidates. We would expect smaller numbers at Harvard even with optimal recruiting, because educational and cultural barriers prevent some from receiving the academic preparation necessary to compete in the larger applicant pool. When I talked to her, Director of Admissions Marlyn McGrath Lewis ’70-’73 rightfully rejected any romantic suggestion that admissions should accept students not fully prepared for the academic challenges they would face here.
But if it is true that “Harvard’s recruitment net is cast at everyone who might bring excellence to Harvard,” as Director of the Undergraduate Minority Recruitment Program (UMRP) Roger Banks assures me it does, then the students and guidance counselors I contacted might advise us to buy a new net. Payne said he saw no admissions materials or information from Harvard at his West Virginia high school, which draws from an area where the median income is $25,000. Among talented students at his school, “Many don’t know that Harvard is an option.” Goins observed in her recruiting work as a UMRP representative in Louisiana that well-intended efforts in her area “leave out poor kids across the board, both black and white.”
When I called guidance counselors at high schools near the homes of students I interviewed, they were quite surprised to hear from somebody at Harvard. Patricia A. Hamilton, the senior counselor at Morgan’s public high school in Tupelo, Mississippi, was disappointed that Harvard did not keep in touch with her school after Morgan enrolled. “Harvard doesn’t send materials like the other schools do,” she said, which is a shame given that her school has talented students who might apply “if they had a little encouragement from Harvard.”
Pamela K. Porter from Logan High School in West Virginia said that her students “think the school is too expensive.” When I read to her directly from Harvard’s admissions literature, however, she reacted with audible surprise to the generosity of our financial aid program. She said that neither she nor her students had any idea so much money was available. “We have some students that would fit in there that would like to go,” she said with her new awareness.
While far from hard science, these conversations do suggest very simple ways Harvard in which can improve its recruiting. Admissions should make the rather minimal effort needed to send application materials even to the poorest high schools, since those schools may well supply applicants. Were admissions to then make a follow up call, as the guidance counselors’ surprise to my brief contact suggests, Harvard may find itself back on their radar screen.
Admissions can and should go further, however. The UMRP’s success at sending students to their hometowns to recruit for racial and ethnic diversity should be extended to the economic and even geographic spheres. Subsidized campus visits for promising low-income students would encourage those candidates to consider Harvard, including those that never visit, because it would symbolize that they have a place here. We should also consider switching to a need-conscious admissions policy, consistent with the principles of affirmative action in admissions, to boost the number of low income applicants.
Progress against administrative inertia ultimately depends on vigilance and pressure from the larger Harvard community. We must push admissions to shift its priorities beyond easily marketable groups and to include the very low-income students that, in so many other ways, preoccupy our social conscience.
Blake Jennelle ’04 is a social studies concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.
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