HFAI: A Low-Income Revolution

An integral part of what makes Harvard unique—and what has made it into the storied institution it is today—is its habit of taking big risks that yield even bigger results. One area in which Harvard’s innovation and leadership has been particularly visionary has been the fight to increase access to higher education. The fledgling Harvard Financial Aid Initiative (HFAI) program, of which we are student coordinators, is a continuation of this legacy, and in its brief lifespan it has been wildly successful. But if Harvard is to be open to students on all rungs of the socioeconomic ladder, there is still work to be done, particularly in recruiting low-income students.

HFAI is the program through which Harvard has reinforced its commitment to opportunity and excellence across the economic spectrum. Launched by University President Lawrence H. Summers just two years ago, HFAI initially eliminated parental contributions for families with annual incomes of less than $40,000 and dramatically reduced the contributions of families making less than $60,000 a year. Last week Harvard redoubled its commitment to HFAI by announcing that, beginning with the class admitted last week, these two threshold incomes were shifted up to $60,000 and $80,000, respectively. One of the several goals of such an increase is the hope that other institutions of higher learning will follow suit with equally generous aid programs.

But HFAI is not simply limited to financial aid—it is also a recruitment program designed to attract more applicants from lower income brackets. Our recruitment efforts fall under several categories, including almuni involvement, community outreach, and recruitment by HFAI’s seven student coordinators who make thousands of phone calls and send e-mails to prospective students from search lists. But since only so much can be done over the phone or on the internet, during breaks we send 20 HFAI undergraduates on recruitment trips to their hometowns to visit local high schools and middle schools.

A major limitation, however, is that outreach to schools from traditionally low- and moderate-income areas can only be as effective as the counselors’ and students’ conceptions of Harvard allow. For instance, no matter how much one recruiter expressed her desire to hold information sessions with academically competitive students from the school, in the end, it was the guidance counselor and the students’ somewhat uninformed perception of Harvard’s reputation that determined who attended the information session.

We try to address this problem in two ways. First, we inform guidance counselors about HFAI and how it makes Harvard accessible to any student who is academically qualified with the hope that the counselor will invite a wider array of students to the information session. Second, we offer ourselves as personal resources for students as they go through the application process, as students often do not know how to apply to Harvard or have sub-par guidance through the process.

Another major obstacle that HFAI faces is that many of the students who could benefit from the program are not aware of its existence. Top-notch students who qualify for HFAI are scattered across the country and most attend schools with few resources devoted to college-bound students. If they cannot find us, we have to try to find them.

To increase awareness, we plan to establish relationships so that we can begin reaching out to schools and students that in the past haven’t been contacted by Harvard. One way we will do this is by contacting the over 3,000 Title I high schools across the country. These schools receive federal funding because they have a certain percentage of students that qualify for the free and reduced lunch program, a good indicator of income. We will be greatly helped in this effort by Freed Professor of Economics Caroline M. Hoxby ’88 and Larsen Professor of Public Policy Christopher N. Avery ’88, who have devised cutting-edge technology to identify the most appropriate students from such schools. A second way to identify low income schools is by focusing on schools that have not had a student apply to Harvard before or within recent years.

In the long run, we hope that HFAI will fulfill a greater mission than simply increasing the number of low-income students that come to Cambridge. Its ultimate goal is to increase high school aged students’ awareness about the practicality of a college education, even if that does not mean attending Harvard. We seek to raise awareness of available financial aid and encourage all students to attend college and think about colleges they may not have thought of applying to. Indeed, the HFAI office coordinators are trained to answer questions about admissions, college life, and financial aid so they are an invaluable resource for all students.

Harvard’s increased commitment to HFAI is an exciting and groundbreaking transformation in making college more accessible to people of different economic backgrounds. Harvard continues to see an increase in requests for information about this program and the caliber of applicants continues to increase. The next milestone, and one that will take more than just Harvard’s endowment, is to inform students about HFAI and the potential of attending college at the grassroots level. The face of higher education is changing and programs like HFAI will surely help shape its future.

Bryce E. Caswell ’07 is a government concentrator in Quincy House. Precious E. Eboigbe ’07 is a history and science concentrator in Adams House. They are both HFAI student coordinators.