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Communities Must Encourage Applicants

Letters to the Editors

By Imtiyaz H. Delawala

To the editors:

While Elizabeth W. Green’s Fifteen Minutes scrutiny, “A Classy Affair” (Nov. 13), on the lack of income diversity at Harvard is very well-written and researched, I can’t help but feel that blaming Harvard for the problem is an inaccurate diagnosis.

The article points out valid ways in which Harvard could be doing more to draw lower-income students, through more recruiting and making its financial aid program better known to many who assume Harvard is only for the wealthy. But it also shows what Harvard already does to increase access for those from lower-income backgrounds, such as considering social class as a “tip factor” to ensure that students who may have not had access to as many opportunities to excel due to financial constraints are given a fair chance in the admissions process. And as the article states, the financial burden of attending Harvard for low-income students is often non-existent due to Harvard’s generous aid, which allows many students to graduate almost debt-free. So when University President Lawrence H. Summers said at his inaugural address that the doors of Harvard are now open to anyone, regardless of ability to pay, there is truth in his words.

I believe the real problems often instead lie with high schools in working-class communities, which should be doing more to encourage good students to think about and plan for college. As an alum from a “blue-collar-and-below” zip code, I well know the problems that plague many less affluent schools, many of which focus on ensuring students pass standardized tests and graduate from high school, with little attention paid to where they go afterwards. At my high school, for example, a counselor estimated that only about 20 percent of seniors each year go on to a four-year college. This is not due to a lack of talented students—I believe it has more to do with a culture of low expectations, where few parents or teachers expect even the best students to go to a top college, even if they are more than qualified, as shown by their grades, test scores and extracurricular achievements. Most of the students I shared honors classes with did not look beyond small colleges near home, or did not think about college at all until they were already too far behind in the application process. As Green’s article points out, some 43 percent of high-performing students in lower income brackets never even take the SAT, making it difficult for top schools to recruit them. These students often do not know of the existence of SAT II tests, early admission deadlines or of FAFSA forms, making it virtually impossible for them to apply to top schools and receive the needed financial aid to attend.

This is not to say that nothing is being done. Some less affluent schools provide subsidized SAT prep courses for needy students and also give fee discounts for AP tests. Many teachers and counselors give their already-stretched time for letters of recommendation and application forms. Often, however, few students are guided to plan for college, as is done at most top high schools. Just as Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 says he was not encouraged to apply to Harvard, strong students at my high school who I know could have attended good colleges were not pushed to apply. Certainly not everyone can get into Harvard, but too many of my peers who were qualified enough to go to top private colleges and strong state schools simply never applied—which makes it very hard for top schools to increase their economic diversity.

The lack of income diversity at Harvard is real, and something I felt in my time there. The article is correct to point out that Harvard could take the national lead in working to increase access for lower-income students, as it has done for racial diversity. But while Harvard could do more, it is also up to parents at home and teachers and counselors at less affluent high schools—as well as school and government officials who should be pushing for increased funding for needed SAT prep and AP programs as well as counselor training—to make sure students know that the doors of higher education are open to all good students, and that receiving a college degree, not just a high school diploma, should be every qualified student’s goal.

Imtiyaz H. Delawala ’03

Tel Aviv, Israel

Nov. 20, 2003

The writer was president of The Crimson in 2002.

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