When Lucerito L. Ortiz ’10 was in high school, she never believed attending Harvard was a remote possibility. “I applied as a dare,” she reminisces.
“It was like, ‘Yeah right, Harvard,’” she recounts, sitting at her desk in the admissions office of Harvard College.
Across the country, students who might be Harvard material in the eyes of the admissions office remain unaware that Harvard could be an option for them. Some believe the Ivy League is for the rich. Others have only seen students from their high schools go on to college in their home state. For many, the image they envision as the typical Harvard student does not look like them.
The admissions office has drastically cut back on its spending on recruiting in recent years. Officers no longer put on information sessions in high schools. Gone are the glossy viewbooks. But at least one goal has outweighed the office’s post-financial-crisis interest in saving money on recruiting.
The Office of Admissions still strives to ensure that when every talented high school student looks in the mirror, he or she sees a potential Harvard applicant.
Many students’ concerns about storied institutions like Harvard spring from anxieties or false impressions tied to race and ethnicity. To attract outstanding students from backgrounds that are underrepresented at Harvard, the College actively reaches out to minority students through the Undergraduate Minority Recruitment Program.
The effort, which has survived unscathed while many similar initiatives withered in the harsh financial climate of recent years, repays Harvard’s ongoing support with impressive results. Every year, according to Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67, the UMRP contacts 75 to 90 percent of the minority students who eventually end up at Harvard. The program enjoys a high success rate as it aims to convince students of color that they would indeed look right in crimson.
UMRP is staffed by a paid team of student coordinators who encourage minority students from across the nation to apply to Harvard.
The process starts in the summer, when the admissions office receives a list from the College Board of rising seniors who identified themselves as minority students on the PSAT and agreed to be contacted by colleges. UMRP employees send introductory emails to these students to pique their interest in applying to Harvard.
Ortiz, who is now the assistant director of UMRP, declined to state the scores these students must attain to receive an email from Harvard. “We tend to target students who we feel can fall in an academic range that would be feasible, that would make them feasible and competitive applicants for Harvard,” she said.
The admissions office sends another email to these students in the fall to remind them of the early action application deadline.
During the summer and fall, UMRP staffers often act as long-distance guidance counselors. High school students who have been targeted by minority recruits can call the office to ask for assistance with their application process.
“Their concerns are not very different from everyone else’s: concerns about transitioning, about community, about extracurriculars, academic transitions, all those things,” Ortiz said.
But having a dedicated phone line for responding to those questions is helpful for the students on UMRP’s list. “The program’s purpose is to act as a support network for students who may not find these resources or this information elsewhere,” Ortiz said.
And in the first year since 2006 that Harvard offered two application options, early and regular, this support might have been especially welcome. The early admissions program was scrapped six years ago partly on the grounds that underrepresented groups, both racial and socioeconomic, tend not to have as much access to advisers who can help them prepare college applications in time for a Nov. 1 deadline.
Ortiz said that the UMRP also seeks to spread awareness about attending college in general for students who might not otherwise consider it. “For us, it’s not just about raising awareness about accessibility and affordability at Harvard. It’s also letting students know that other places like Harvard have similar programs,” she said.
BRINGING HARVARD HOME
Although budget cuts have mostly taken the admissions officers who once traveled to high schools off the roads, current students at the College serve as recruiters through the UMRP. Each year, the program picks roughly 10 to 12 students to travel to about 15 high schools near their hometowns during January break.
“I think it’s very powerful when students go back to their own neighborhoods,” Ortiz said. She said that a current student at the College who is from the region can often be a more compelling representative than an admissions officer or alumnus. “Harvard still carries a stereotype as an elite institution that’s only for extremely wealthy people or crazy geniuses.... The idea of having students staff the office is to break down those stereotypes and let them know that there are people of all different backgrounds of all different kinds of experiences.”
The students recruited by UMRP often attend high schools that lack robust college counseling programs. Though she said her office maps these recruiters’ itineraries based on the students’ own origins, not a set list of destinations, the UMRP typically sends students to major urban hubs such as New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles each year.
“We like to target schools that are not necessarily normally targeted by a lot of colleges or universities,” Ortiz said. However, she said that it is difficult to send students to very rural areas where schools are sparsely located.
UMRP Coordinator Ronnye C. Rutledge ’12 made a recruiting trip to her home state of Indiana during her freshman year. “It was for me an opportunity that I wished had been offered when I was a senior applying to Harvard,” she said. “One of the most fulfilling things about this job is breaking down a lot of these misconceptions.”
The face of Harvard is more varied than many imagine. Minorities including blacks, Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans make up 40.6 percent of the current freshman class.
SPENDING ON SUPPORT
All these efforts, whether in Cambridge over the summer or on the road over winter break, cost money. The College has supported minority recruiting with undiminished funding.
According to Ortiz, the program’s budget has not been cut even while other initiatives have seen funding slashed. “It’s a priority. We want to make sure we provide the support that students need to be able to go through this process and possibly go here,” she said.
Fitzsimmons voiced the importance of the program in strengthening the overall class. “We work very hard to get the best pool we possibly can,” he said. “If you want to have a great student body, you really have to do this. You really have to reach out.”
Ortiz said that students would be tangibly affected were the UMRP to shrink. “When you start cutting programming, the first students and the students that most get hurt are low-income and minority students that don’t always have the support systems, the support networks, and the counseling to be able to navigate a very complex and complicated process,” she said.
That support extends even after students receive their acceptance letters. In the spring, the UMRP shifts its focus to increasing the yield of minority students accepted to the College by reaching out to admitted students. Cultural organizations help the UMRP call accepted minority students at phone-a-thons and host them during Visitas, the College’s April visiting program for admitted students.
“A lot of the members want to make sure that Latino prefrosh get Latino hosts,” said Herbert B. Castillo ’14, the president of Fuerza Latina.
Ortiz explained the rationale behind this ethnicity-based housing: “We just try to make sure that students know that there are places here where they can fit in.”
—Staff writer Elizabeth S. Auritt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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