Merit Over Money

When Patricia Rincon ’08’s parents lost their jobs during her sophomore year of high school, her college prospects didn’t seem

When Patricia Rincon ’08’s parents lost their jobs during her sophomore year of high school, her college prospects didn’t seem too bright. With a combined income of around $20,000, her family had more urgent things to think about than higher education.

“There was no way my parents could pay $40,000 per year for college,” Rincon says. “Even at a local school, it would have been hard.” So when she landed in Boston last September as a Harvard freshman, it was, all told, a pretty unexpected turn of events.

Rincon is a Mexican-American student from Century High, an inner-city school in the predominantly low-income city of Santa Ana, Calif. The first person from Century to come to Harvard, she is precisely the kind of student that the University has been targeting under the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative (HFAI)—a flagship program that could drastically alter the socioeconomic makeup of the undergraduate population.

University President Lawrence H. Summers announced the Initiative in February 2004, promising increased financial aid, intensified recruiting, more personalized applicant evaluations, and a summer program for low-income students. These four components, Summers said at the time, would “encourage talented students from families of low and moderate income to attend Harvard College.”

So far, HFAI has been working.

When the time came for Rincon to decide where, if at all, she would attend college, Harvard’s financial aid package made all the difference. “Harvard basically said, ‘here’s the money.’ I couldn’t say no to that,” she says. “It was the reason I was able to come here.”


When Summers unveiled HFAI last year, he made a striking point to illustrate why it was so crucial: the dumbest rich kids in the country were going to college at the same rate as the smartest poor kids. In other words, a student’s chances of attending college often had more to do with money than merit.

Summers, who has been one of HFAI’s biggest supporters, also reported that only around 10 percent of students in the country’s top institutions were coming from the bottom half of the national income scale. At Harvard, the figures were only marginally better.

“That’s not so hot,” says the College’s Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67.

The key to improvement, according to Fitzsimmons, is to assiduously seek out low-income students—students who, for a number of reasons, would not otherwise consider Harvard—and convince them that Cambridge is an option. “It’s rubbish to say that ‘if you build it, they will come,’” he says. “Go to Dallas—Harvard and Yale are not on students’ lists.” That’s where the Initiative comes in.

Staffed by ten undergraduates, HFAI is housed in the basement of Byerly Hall, home to the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid. The students work in a cramped 10-foot by 25-foot former storage closet, networking with high school kids and sending literature out to guidance counselors. From this hole in the wall, the HFAI recruitment team has contacted over 12,000 kids culled from College Board “search lists” of students with high PSAT scores. HFAI’s outreach is now a significant reason why, according to Fitzsimmons, “Harvard is the most aggressive recruiter in the country.”

While the program is officially overseen by Fitzsimmons, its day-to-day operation is left to undergraduates. HFAI employee Bryce E. Caswell ’07 says students have been responsible for coming up with some of the most creative measures, such as writing to poor high schools and establishing a mentoring program for low-income students at Harvard.

HFAI also relies heavily on personal connections to draw in students. While most Harvard admissions officers are neither inviting nor elusive to applicants, HFAI recruits relentlessly. “They contacted us like a million times a day,” says Olivia A. Benowitz ’09, an HFAI recruit who visited Harvard over prefrosh weekend.


“We’ve tried to keep it a clear, simple message,” says Sally Donahue, the College’s Director of Financial Aid. “Harvard is accessible for all talented students regardless of economic circumstances.”

Starting last year, families with incomes below $40,000 were expected to pay nothing for their child’s college education. In addition, required contributions were greatly reduced for families making between $40,000 and $60,000 per year.

The Admissions Office estimates that almost 360 students in the Class of 2009 will qualify for aid under the new HFAI standards—a full 22 percent more than the Class of 2008.

“This is the most socioeconomically diverse class in the history of Harvard,” Donahue says.

At an HFAI prefrosh reception last Friday in Loker Commons, many members of the Class of ’09 mentioned the importance of the program in their decision to apply to and attend Harvard.

John P. Harrison III ’09, an Atlanta native who says that Harvard is covering 90 percent of his tuition, initially didn’t consider Harvard because of its elitist reputation. “I was under the impression that Harvard was what it was 30 years ago,” he says. After being contacted by HFAI, Harrison reconsidered his position and applied. “Without HFAI, I probably wouldn’t be here.”

Similarly, Benowitz, a sprightly prefrosh from a performing arts school in New York City, said that Harvard was on her radar “only as a dream school—one of the ones you don’t go to,” until she learned about HFAI.

The results of HFAI’s work can be seen not only in students such as Rincon, Harrison, and Benowitz, but in those similarly lower-income students who will follow them to elite universities in the coming years. For example, after receiving recruitment letters from HFAI and the Undergraduate Minority Recruitment Program (UMRP), Rincon applied, accepted, and matriculated. But it didn’t stop there. Mike A. Nguyen ’09, another low-income soon-to-be graduate of Century High School, followed her lead and applied to Harvard the next year. Rincon and Nguyen were the first and second kids, respectively, to come to Harvard from their high school, setting the stage for others to apply in the future.

And this is exactly the type of success HFAI is aiming for. Students from across the country have been calling their office on a daily basis to ask about the details of the program, says senior coordinator Emily C. Haigh ’05. The HFAI e-mail inbox is also full of inquiries from parents, college counselors, and high school kids asking for applications.

If the HFAI team continues to convert recruits into results, Harvard’s “old boy” reputation may be in for a drastic change.