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Amid Uncertainty, Admissions Dean Discusses Drop in Harvard Applications

For Harvard's College Class of 2021, there were  40,246 students who applied, marking the lowest number of applications in three years.
For Harvard's College Class of 2021, there were 40,246 students who applied, marking the lowest number of applications in three years. By Sílvia Casacuberta Puig
By Benjamin L. Fu and Dohyun Kim, Crimson Staff Writers

A nationwide decrease in the number of high school seniors could contribute to this year’s seven percent drop in applicants to Harvard College’s Class of 2024, according to Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67.

Fitzsimmons said additional factors accounting for the drop could include social disruptions such as natural disasters, school shootings, and a shortage of college counselors, as well as inexpensive public universities closer to applicants’ homes.

States with large applicant pools, such as California, Florida, and Texas, showed declines in applicant numbers from the previous class pool – of 12, 10, and 8 percent, respectively – that surpassed the overall percent decrease.

“In California, the ratio of counselee to counselor is about 750 to one in the public schools,” Fitzsimmons said. “But then, if you have wildfires and school closings, some shooter incidents, there were lots of things going on. So there was less time than ever for the one counselor to deal with the 750 average number of people.”

Meanwhile, in light of the spread of coronavirus, Fitzsimmons spoke about how the pandemic could affect the incoming class, highlighting the difficulty his office has experienced in evaluating the yield for this year’s class.

“This will be the most difficult I think in our history, because of coronavirus,” Fitzsimmons said. “There will still be a lot to learn about what happens from this virus.”

Fitzsimmons said the coronavirus outbreak will also affect future applicants, especially international students who are planning to take standardized tests.

With respect to the unpredictability of the situation, Fitzsimmons said he hopes the programs at Harvard to support international or low-income students will attract admits and future applicants alike.

“Could it be, when, in times of uncertainty, people go to security?” Fitzsimmons said. “So will Harvard represent to them a certain degree of security? Strong financial aid program, great resources, will that make Harvard more attractive in a time like this?”

“People might decide that the security is staying closer to home in uncertainty,” he added.

Fitzsimmons also discussed a new financial aid initiative that eliminates the summer work expectation for students receiving aid from the College.

“You want them to be able to have the time in the summer to explore future careers, for example,” Fitzsimmons said. “But if we're going to get more people to, which I hope, to go into the academic world or to do public service and community service, then I think what we've done now with this is we've opened up all the programs we have in the summer here.”

The uncertainty regarding current global events prompted Fitzsimmons to question the possible logistics of international students of future classes matriculating at the College.

“Will they be able to leave?” he said. “Will we end up having an increased number of people decide that they would come another year — so take a gap year?”

—Staff writer Benjamin L. Fu can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @BenFu_2.

—Staff writer Dohyun Kim can be reached at

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40,246 Apply to the Class of 2024 As College Announces New Financial Aid Initiative