A Classy Affair

The paradox began in 1869 when Charles W. Eliot, pedigreed son of the mayor of Boston whose namesake House would
By Elizabeth W. Green

The paradox began in 1869 when Charles W. Eliot, pedigreed son of the mayor of Boston whose namesake House would become synonymous with elitism, made a pledge to the American underclass.

“No good student need ever stay away from Cambridge or leave college simply because he is poor,” said Eliot, Class of 1853, as he became the twenty-first president of Harvard University—which would lack a viable financial aid program until 1936.

Six inaugurations and 132 years later, University President Lawrence H. Summers breathed new life into the generations-old contradiction.

“Today,” he said proudly, “Harvard is open to men and women of all faiths, all races, all classes, all states, all nations...Inability to pay does not constrain students from coming to Harvard College.”

Neither Eliot nor Summers mentioned the numbers, which tell a different story: A Harvard degree is still the nearly exclusive privilege of the upper class.

In a nation of need, Harvard students are awash in wealth.

Because only those students who apply for financial aid report their family incomes, a college-wide income distribution is impossible to calculate. But of the 47 percent of Harvard College students who receive scholarship aid, 35 percent have a family income of over $100,000. And assuming that those students who receive aid are among the neediest at Harvard, then 70 percent of students either make $100,000 or more—or can comfortably handle Harvard’s steep price tag while making less.

The secret is out: to be lower-income is to be in a lonely minority at Harvard. Of students who receive aid, only 19 percent make $40,000 a year or less, the income of 38 percent of the country’s families, according to the Census Bureau. And, assuming that all students who make $40,000 or less apply for aid, only 9 percent of the College falls into this lower bracket.

How can these numbers square with the College’s oft-touted commitment to diversity?

Harvard, of course, would say that it is doing all it can. All the way through the process, the University works hard to build a diverse class. Even before filling out a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), high-performing students from low-income backgrounds are recruited to apply to the College.

As applicants, these students are given preferences, with their social class acting as a “tip factor” just like race or legacy, according to Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67. This year’s admissions process even boasts a new program to track applicants according to a “geodemographic” indicator that draws a spotlight to applicants with blue-collar-and-below zip codes, Fitzsimmons said.

Once admitted, every Harvard undergraduate will be awarded demonstrated need by the financial aid office, no matter what financial pressures this might put on the Budget Office. The University’s robust financial aid program, one of the best in the world, makes sure of that. It also takes good care of students once they arrive, offering financial assistance for ticketed student productions, loans for computers and money for warm clothes.

Therefore, it is not Harvard’s lack of effort, Fitzsimmons and his colleagues argue, but society’s lack of equal opportunity that creates a disproportionately wealthy student body.

Case in point, it would seem, are the other Ivies. They’re almost all just as socio-economically top-heavy as Harvard. But although Harvard is not a lone repository of wealth in the Ivy League, other top schools—even some Ivy League schools—do income diversity better, suggesting universities are not necessarily powerless in the face of societal inequality and that Harvard could be working harder.

A good indicator of economic diversity in higher education is the percentage of students receiving federal Pell Grants, a scholarship offered to students with family incomes below about $40,000. A recent report by the left-leaning think tank the Century Foundation that relied on Pell numbers revealed that although Princeton’s student body is even less economically diverse than Harvard’s, and though Yale, Penn, Brown and Dartmouth are only slightly ahead, the two other members of the Ivy League dwarf their peers in diversity.

Columbia and Cornell each boast nearly double the percentage of Pell Grant recipients as Harvard’s 9 percent, the second-lowest in the Ivy League. At Columbia, 1,023 students received Pell Grants in the 2001-02 academic year; at Harvard, where the student body is larger by 2,000, only about 600 did.

Outside of the Ivy League, other top institutions boast even more heterogeneous student bodies by income. At the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), 35 percent of students receive Pell Grants, according to the Century Foundation study. Sixteen percent of Amherst College’s student body receives Pell grants. And just down the river at MIT, 12 percent of students receive the federal grants.

Donald E. Heller, a professor at the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Penn State University, who authored the Century Foundation report, says his report offers conclusive proof that schools like Harvard could be doing more to back up its diversity claims.

“Let’s face it, out of all the universities in the country, Harvard has more market power than any other. If it really wanted to, it could steal some of those Pell Grant recipients from other universities,” Heller says. “If Larry Summers woke up tomorrow and said, ‘This is what we’re going to spend the next ten years on—moving the number of Pell Grant recipients at Harvard,’ I guarantee that Harvard could do that.”

But, Fitzsimmons says, other priorities make this impossible. Namely, Harvard would never forsake its tradition of academic excellence, or lower its sky-high admissions standards, just to alter its income numbers.

On the question of why other selective schools can stand to admit more economically underprivileged students, Fitzsimmons points out that no school is as selective as Harvard. Where Heller sees enormous market power, Fitzsimmons sees incredible competition.

Even with preferences given to lower-income students, it’s hard to turn down some of the world-class students who apply to Harvard, the admissions dean argues. And whereas other schools with lower yields can afford to admit a larger chunk than they expect to matriculate, Harvard has to narrow things down early, leaving it less room to work with.

“We are an academic institution,” Fitzsimmons says. “If someone appears to be one of the future’s most prominent scholars, we cannot hold it against that person that [he or she] comes from a wealthy background.”

As Richard D. Kahlenberg ’85, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation who studies higher education, sees it, that defense basically boils down to the misconception that “poor kids can’t do the work.”

For that reason Kahlenberg calls Harvard’s economic diversity record “miserable.”

“Harvard is the richest university, [so] it’s the one in the best position to take on this issue of income diversity,” says Kahlenberg, who commissioned Heller’s report. “It has a very strong record in taking a leadership role on racial diversity, and it’s completely left income diversity off the table.”


This charge from Kahlenberg is particularly biting considering who is at the head of Harvard’s admissions table. Before he was an admissions officer, before he became a Harvard dean, Fitzsimmons was a working-class kid in Braintree. When he told some of the teachers at his high school that he was interested in going to Harvard, Fitzsimmons says they shot back at him, shocked.

“Harvard is a bunch of communists and a bunch of atheists—a bunch of rich snobs. You would flunk out, and you would lose your soul,” he remembers his teachers telling him.

But Fitzsimmons found the idea of a school stealing his soul intriguing, and he applied. He was able to attend thanks to a nearly full scholarship, a dorm crew job and a few loans. So when Fitzsimmons talks about low-income students, he doesn’t usually say “low-income” or “poor,” but “kids from my kind of background” or “kids like me.”

And he knows as well as anyone what it’s like to be a part of Harvard and at the same time feel apart from it. “It took me a long time when I was here at Harvard to get comfortable with affluence,” he says.

“You’re sitting there in one of these gorgeous common rooms, these wood-paneled common rooms, looking up at oil paintings, and you’re thinking about what your family is going through.”

But Fitzsimmons has stuck around for the ride, starting work in the admissions office in the early 1970s after studying at the Graduate School of Education—and, he says, fighting all along the way to increase access to a place whose diplomas can change lives.

In this way, Fitzsimmons finds a peer in Thomas H. Parker, Fitzsimmons’ counterpart at Amherst, a small, liberal arts college consistently ranked one of the best in the nation. At around the same time that Fitzsimmons was making his cross-cultural journey from Braintree to Harvard, Parker, the son of a gym teacher and a telephone operator, traveled from his home in Brooklyn to Williams College.

In the late 1980s, the two deans’ similar backgrounds and access goals caught up with them. As Parker tells it, they both found themselves punching the same traits into a College Board database that allowed admissions offices to send out what are called “search letters,” or letters advertising a college’s interest in a student, to particular kinds of applicants.

“Here’s Fitz, who comes from a first-generation family in Braintree, and me, the fourth-poorest student in my class [at Williams], using it to search low-income kids. The following year, the College Board said we’ve discontinued that—because so many colleges were using it to search for high-income kids. I never dreamed that people were doing what they were doing,” Parker says.

Today, Fitzsimmons has figured out a way to get behind the College Board’s moratorium on income-tracking. He and his team search for high-performing students in zip codes they know to be blue-collar or below.

“Admissions would not be an attractive way to spend your life if all you did is talk to people and admit people who would have applied anyway,” Fitzsimmons says. “You really judge yourself in the end by how much of a difference you can make.”

Fitzsimmons and Parker may be in philosophical agreement, but their respective student bodies suggest there must be some divergence between the two in practice.

At Amherst, somewhere between 23 and 25 percent of students report family incomes below $50,000, according to Parker. At Harvard, that number is about 13 percent. Though the Amherst student body is only 1,618—about the size of one Harvard College class—the comparison still sheds some light on how Harvard measures up.

This may be an issue of institutional priority. About two weekends ago, Amherst’s president commissioned a retreat to discuss how to raise his school’s number of low-income students. Like Summers, Anthony W. Marx is a young president with a bright vision for his school. But Marx’s vision is closely focused on what he called in his inaugural address the responsibility that comes with privilege—a responsibility “to select the best of diverse students.”

Summers’ vision for Harvard is not firmly focused on this one goal, even only on the College level. And that difference may explain the two schools’ diversity discrepancies. For example, in the last three years Amherst has promised away all debt for low-income students, a move that Parker says came at a high price tag.

At Harvard, though Director of Financial Aid Sally Donahue says she would love to lower the “self-help” expectation required of students, she points to a number of ventures that Harvard’s money might be focused on instead.

There’s Allston, the dream of an innovated science complex and an increase in the number of international students, plans that have all been high on Summers’ list since he was inaugurated three years ago.

None of this erases Fitzsimmons’ past though, and none of it seems to cut away from his commitment. But the dean says as much as he and the rest of the admissions office have tried to build greater economic diversity, he feels the team has exhausted its options.

“There isn’t much more we can do in the admissions process,” he says. “There aren’t many stones that haven’t been turned over.”


For some, Harvard’s lack of economic diversity can be explained in one word: elitism.

“There are certain cultural issues going on here,” says Kahlenberg. “Going back to the ’60s, which is when [race-based] affirmative action really got going, the white low-income and working-class families ceased to be sympathetic in the eyes of many in the academic community. There was this idea, well, they’re a bunch of Archie Bunkers. And I think that’s a real tragedy.”

Kahlenberg in particular mentions former University President Derek Bok, who along with Princeton President William G. Bowen authored a seminal book on race in admissions, The Shape of the River. Bok, says Kahlenberg, is typical of Harvard’s “We’d love to have more poor kids but they just aren’t academically prepared” stance.

Today, Bok defends this stance. “I don’t think any of us would applaud if we said, ‘Gee, we made a big move to bring in low-income students to add diversity,’ and then the next year say half or three-quarters of them have flunked out,” Bok says. “We know more about what it takes [to do well at Harvard] than they do, so we have some responsibility to take people who can reasonably succeed. Once you’re over that threshold, certainly income diversity is an important form of diversity and ought to be given significant weight.”

Figures provided by the admissions office suggest that this threshold, measured in SAT-terms, is around 1300. Although students from families making below $40,000 a year on the whole face lower acceptance rates than those from more wealth, above this 1300 threshold, the acceptance rates flip-flop.

For example, among applicants who scored a perfect 1600 last year, 39 percent were admitted to the Class of 2007. But for those perfect-scorers whose family income was below $40,000, the acceptance rates soar up to 53 percent. The trend continues down to the 1200 mark, at which point acceptance rates level out at around 5 percent.

Reliance on SAT scores to determine the minimal-requirement threshold is not a universally popular move. Copious evidence suggests that performance on standardized tests is correlated to socioeconomic status, and studies have shown that it’s not by any personal failure that people who are poorer score lower. A March 2003 Century Foundation study backed others’ findings that low-income students placed in wealthy high schools tend to outscore their low-income peers at poorer schools.

To what extent allowances are made for this nearly universally accepted class-SAT-score relationship depends on the school.

“Do we make sacrifices in SAT points to be socioeconomically diverse? Yes. Do we make what I call sacrifices of human intelligence to do that? I would say no. You have to understand that the SAT is not an intelligence test,” says Amherst’s Parker. “It’s a test of aptitude in a person’s life that is affected to an extraordinary degree by opportunity.”

The Harvard admissions office, according to Fitzsimmons, understands this just as much as anyone else. How else to explain the fact that 60 percent of applicants with perfect SAT scores are turned down? “The truth is, when you’re reading a real application, there are so many ways to demonstrate excellence,” Fitzsimmons says. “But the ability to demonstrate excellence is often shaped by socioeconomic background.”

But one student who works at the admissions office interprets Harvard’s take differently. By his account, Harvard admissions officers work from “implicit classism” when they determine what it means to be qualified.

“Harvard’s belief is, if you do well at a poor school, we just won’t admit it. We still write you off,” he says. “[They think,] ‘These kids aren’t going to succeed at Harvard. They’re just not. So why admit them, get their hopes up? They’re just going to fail out.’ Their belief is, ‘Let these students go elsewhere—some state school or community college—and then their kids can go to Harvard.’”

But not only Harvard insiders will defend the school’s staunch academic standards. Brian K. Fitzgerald, staff director of the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance at the U.S. Department of Education, also explains Harvard’s relatively low economic diversity by its top-of-the-pack standards.

“The more selective the institution,” he says, “the fewer low-income students they have to choose from.”

But Fitzgerald does offer one piece of advice: “The most appropriate question is what can be done to incorporate [more low-income students] while not lowering admissions standards,” he says. “I think the right answer is outreach, and recruiting.”


Harvard is, as many have noted, a business, with students as its customers.

When the Harvard brand takes to the road, alumni and admissions officers are its door-to-door salespeople, and high schools are their audience.

Harvard visits two kinds of schools: institutions that historically have sent enough students through the Yard gates to earn them the title of “feeder schools,” and, on the other end of the spectrum, schools that do not regularly send seniors off to Harvard. And Harvard sends “search letters” to a wide swath of students based on SAT scores and self-reported grade point averages. Harvard alumni also visit middle schools across the country, particularly low-performing middle schools, to make “early awareness” visits.

In addition, since 1991 Harvard has joined up with Penn, Duke and Georgetown to make national “joint-travel” visits to 140 cities across the country, broadcasting Harvard’s name—and its message—to an even wider audience.

Central to that message, says Fitzsimmons, is financial aid. “The general public misconceives how much Harvard costs,” he says. “And that’s especially true in blue-collar backgrounds. Joint-travel allows us to get the families in the room, which is very, very critical.”

Fitzsimmons has good reason to believe that once he gets the families listening to Harvard’s affordability pitch he may well find qualified candidates who otherwise would not consider the Ivy League. The Century Foundation study mentioned earlier, which used data that tracked 30,000 students through their high school and post-graduation careers, found that some of the highest-performing students in the lower income brackets never even take the SAT: 43 percent of those from the bottom socioeconomic quartile and the top performance quartile took no achievement test at all, the study found.

These are the kinds of students that Fitzsimmons would like to capture and pull into the Harvard admissions pool. “We do something different every year,” he says. “We’re always trying to figure out how to be more effective in recruiting.”

Two schools with substantially higher percentages of low-income students among their ranks offer two examples for ways in which Harvard could be doing more.

At Amherst, in order to lure admitted lower-income students into coming, the college pays for the visits of between 185 and 200 students who couldn’t otherwise afford a trip, according to Parker. At Harvard, where more students overall are from low-income backgrounds, this number was only 95 last year, Director of Financial Aid Sally Donahue says. Columbia offers an entire scholarship program earmarked specifically for students from poor backgrounds that assures a set number of low-income applicants will get in each year, and acts as its own advertisement for affordability.

And the student who works in the admissions office offers his own advice. “If you really want to make a commitment to socioeconomic diversity, you have to recruit,” he says. “You don’t even have to have the programs [like Columbia], you just have to have a structure to recruit low-income students.”

Harvard’s admissions office runs a Minority Recruitment Program, but no program specifically geared toward poorer students.

Presented with all these possibilities, Fitzsimmons warns caution. As for a Columbia-style program, he says, “It’s very hard to know whether if we were to do something like that, whether we would be able to admit the students. It’s very hard for everybody to get in here.”

He also is wary of recruiting too many people. For example, asked why Harvard’s search letters go out to the most selective group of any of the four universities with whom it does joint-travel, Fitzsimmons said spreading Harvard’s word to students with lower SAT scores would be “the wrong thing to do.”

“The worst thing anyone could do is invite lots of kids into our pool and then turn them all down,” he says.

Just how much, then, would Harvard like to up its economic diversity numbers?

The dean insists that he would like to see the number of low-income students at Harvard go up, but he would not comment on how much improvement would be enough.

If Harvard were to move its Pell percentages up to, say, those of Amherst College it would have to admit fully 649 more low-income students.

That move would shift Harvard’s total Pell number from about 600 to about 1,000, and would carry a steep price. Not counting the tuition losses Harvard would incur by pushing out better-off students, and subtracting out the amount in Pell money these students would receive, Harvard would have to tote a bill of about $14 million in grants to pay for these students’ aid, according to numbers provided by Donahue.

But Donahue, who is also an admissions officer, suggested caution in moving the hypothetical number up this high. “You don’t necessarily want to go out there and give double or triple the tip over students who are equally talented,” she said. “We think it would be wonderful if more low-income students could be admitted to Harvard. [But then] there would have to be 300 [or more] students who didn’t come.”


Three years ago, Princeton grabbed headlines when it promised that all its students could, if they wanted to, graduate debt-free.

“We just thought it was time to reverse the trend,” says Don Betterton, Princeton’s director of financial aid. “We had started about three years before to not give loans to low-income students. We finally reached the time where it looked like it was time to eliminate loans for everybody.”

Betterton says promising away debt potential has raised Princeton’s low-income population “substantially,” but he would not say by how much. Still, in the 2001-02 academic year, Princeton remained the least economically diverse school in the Ivy League, with only seven percent of its students receiving Pell Grants.

In practical terms, promising away debt means reducing the portion of aid students are expected to contribute of their own earnings—what colleges call the “self-help” expectation. Lowering the self-help expectation makes it possible for students to contribute to their college tuition solely through work-study, rather than taking out loans.

In the last three years, Princeton’s self-help expectation has fallen to $2,390 for first-years, moving higher each year up to $2,840 for seniors, according to Donahue, who says that this leaves little difference between the Tigers and the Crimson’s expectation of $3,350.

But given Betterton’s claim that even Princeton’s relatively small move has “substantially” increased the number of low-income students attending Princeton, it would seem that even small changes can have an effect on the way students perceive college costs.

Pursuing this line of thinking, Harvard itself has brought down the self-help expectation twice since the 1998-99 academic year. This has dropped the average graduating debt of each class significantly: in 2000, the average senior left Harvard $15,000 in debt; in 2003, the number was $8,800. And Donahue expects the downward trend to continue with this year’s graduating class.

At Amherst, financial aid officers have followed Princeton’s lead and discontinued debt for low-income students. Parker says that the average graduating debt of a low-income student at his school is zero, a number that makes the college’s pitch quite attractive.

While several low-income students at Harvard interviewed for this story say they don’t mind taking out loans to finance their educations—this seems minimal in contrast to the benefits of a Harvard degree—some said they can imagine that others in their place might reason differently.

“I think I know people who actually chose getting scholarships as opposed to having to pay loans or anything else,” says Maribel Hernandez ’04, who will graduate with a $6,000 debt that she says she’s not too worried about.

There is a big difference between Harvard and what Donahue and Fitzsimmons call “mega-money” scholarship options at places like the University of Virginia and Duke, scholarships which not only forgive a student’s tuition but give out extra money as an incentive to enroll. “We’re not in the business of paying students to come here,” she says.

And as for lowering the self-help to promise away debts, Donahue says that this is not in line with Harvard’s philosophy on financial aid. “We do feel strongly, as do many alumni, that it actually is important for students to invest in their own education,” she says. “In general I think people appreciate experiences more by contributing to them. It’s important for students and families to understand that [scholarship help] comes from the generosity of alumni and friends and the commitment on the part of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and that it’s not something necessarily that students and families are entitled to.”


Even in the eyes of its toughest critics, Harvard is not the lone offender. Plenty of schools have just as little economic diversity, as measured by Pell Grant percentages. In fact, some criticize other schools in the Ivy League even more.

For these schools especially, critics argue, good intentions for diversity do not always win out over the bottom line. It’s a simple equation: the costs of diversity outweigh the benefits. The more low-income students a school accepts, they say, the lower its U.S. News and World Report rankings fall. Parker charges that four schools in the Ivy League in particular—Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, Yale and Dartmouth—sacrifice socioeconomic diversity for U.S. News glory.

Moving up in the rankings requires raising a school’s average SAT scores, lowering its acceptance rate and increasing its yields (the ratio of those who are admitted versus those who finally attend). To do that, some admissions offices pad their incoming classes with high scorers and early admits, whose higher likelihood of attendance pushes acceptance rates down and yield up, says Amherst’s Parker, an outspoken critic on this issue.

But low-income students tend to have lower standardized test scores, and they tend overwhelmingly not to apply early. So if a school’s admissions policies are driven by rankings, low-income students are left marginalized.

A bill proposed two weeks ago by Senator Edward M. Kennedy ’54-’56 aims to prevent the rankings-happy mentality from shutting out access to higher education. The bill would force colleges to report the racial and economic breakdowns of their applicant pools, delineated early versus regular, in order to receive certain federal funding.

Parker, who notably exempts Harvard from this category of rankings-obsessed mavericks, calls the overall game “scandalous.”

“There are schools in the Ivy League where fewer than 40 percent of the kids are receiving aid from the college,” he says. “To me, that’s a scandal, because then all you’re doing is giving even more advantage to kids who have all the advantages in the first place.”

Fitzsimmons strongly denied that rankings play any part in Harvard’s admissions decisions. “If we were so concerned about rankings, why would we turn down 60 percent of applicants with 1600 SATs?” he asks. “If we cared strictly about SAT scores or grades, we could be off the charts.”

Aall of this talk begs the question: why should Harvard care? “I had this huge debate over dinner and it basically boiled down to: Does Harvard really care? And should it care?” recalls Francisco Perez ’06, who receives nearly full financial aid.

His dinner companions had an easy answer. “They were just like, well, Harvard’s a business. It doesn’t have to care. It’s not its job to fix society,”

But Perez, for his part, remains optimistic. “They say that’s just the way the world works, you can’t do anything about it. I think you can do something about it,” he says.

Otherwise students like him can feel isolated. “It’s the lifestyle—people here have a very wealthy lifestyle. Food around here is ridiculously expensive. I felt really, really excluded from that last year,” says Perez. “To me, Harvard is completely about class. More than race, more than gender, this place is definitely stratified by class.”

This may be the fundamental reason to improve campus diversity.

To what extent Harvard is behind that effort might be best illuminated by a single footnote.

Weighing in on the past summer’s University of Michigan decision in a jointly issued amicus brief, Harvard joined a chorus of seven other schools affirming their support of race-based affirmative action. Here is traditional Harvard diversity.

But the new diversity—what some have called “white” affirmative action—made its way into the report as well. In a small-print footnote squeezed into the bottom of page 22, the schools wrote that “socioeconomic status” was given “significant favorable consideration” by all their admissions boards.

But of these schools, none can claim to have transcended class lines especially by the Pell Grant numbers. Harvard, in particular, for all its talk of income diversity, remains a bastion of wealth.