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The new First Generation Harvard Shared Interest Group (SIG) is “the natural outcome of Harvard’s very laudable HFAI [Harvard Financial Aid Initiative] program,” notes Kevin Jennings ’85, who founded the SIG and is launching an alumni-mentoring program for first-generation undergraduates (see “First-Generation Challenges”). “We cannot just open the door,” he explains. “We have to support people once they are here. Many recognize this is an issue and want to make sure these students are fully part of the Harvard family.” Among them is dean of admissions and financial aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67, Ed.M. ’69, Ed.D. ’71. A first-generation student himself, he values engaging alumni on the topic: “Many alums who come from these kinds of backgrounds and even those who did not are very interested and willing to help out and serve as role models and resources.”

HFAI is the cornerstone of the University’s continuing efforts to make higher education more accessible by expanding scholarships to middle- and low-income students. Announced in early 2004 under former University president Lawrence H. Summers, HFAI first opened to candidates for the class of 2008 (who entered Harvard in the fall of 2004). It currently ensures that students with family household incomes under $65,000 “have no expected parental contribution for their education.” Students with family incomes of up to $150,000 “will have an average expected parent contribution of 10 percent or less of their income.” According to Fitzsimmons, about 19 percent of Harvard undergraduates come from households with incomes of $65,000 or less. (That group rises to 25 percent at the $80,000-income benchmark.)

Although lower household incomes and first-generation students do not strictly correlate, the new financial policies have generated higher numbers of “first-gens” on campus. Statistics provided by the University’s Office of Institutional Research show that an average of 10 percent of those in the classes of 2008 through 2013 are first-generation students. The highest percentage since HFAI was implemented was 13 percent of first-gens for the class of 2012. These numbers have at least doubled from the 5 percent reported for the pre-HFAI class of 2007.

The office is currently studying College student achievement “with a particular focus on identifying any meaningful differences between groups of students (e.g., men and women, first-generation college students, low-income students, etc.),” according to Erin Driver-Linn, director of institutional research and the Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching. “This ongoing project examines the relationships between precollege experiences (geography, high school, admissions qualifications, etc.), college experiences (courses taken, concentration, extracurriculars, etc.), and college outcomes (as defined by college grades and honors received).”

Harvard looks at a panoply of factors when considering candidates for admission, Fitzsimmons points out, including income and educational levels of their families. “Correlations between parents’ educational levels and their children’s various advances in life are quite strong,” he says, yet Harvard practices a “holistic admissions approach….In every case you really have to look at everything in that folder, not simply whether or not that person has parents who have not gone to college.”

It’s a topic close to home. Fitzsimmons grew up on Boston’s South Shore, where his family owned a gas station. He tells the story of how the nuns he first approached at his high school refused to write him a recommendation to Harvard because of its radical student body and rich kids.

The College, he says, seeks to orient, educate, and shepherd first-generation students, and is always looking for ways to improve those services. Financial aid counselors, for example, are a consistent resource and avenue of support: “I had two or three issues I needed help with as an undergraduate and they were very helpful in getting me through Harvard smoothly,” he recalls. Harvard’s Advising Programs Office (APO) is a growing resource (the number of advisers for the College has doubled during the last decade). Through the Peer Advising Fellows (PAFs) program, upperclassmen volunteer to be paired with 10 freshmen each, to help the first-years with the transition to Harvard. This year, PAF training will include a section on understanding the specific needs of first-gens. The Student Employment Office has expanded the number of jobs available, including research jobs that can be a rich source of professional mentors. The Bureau of Study Counsel provides academic services, such as tutoring and time-management discussion groups. Fitzsimmons also notes that the number of freshman seminars has risen from about 30 to 130. “These smaller classes would have been good for students like me, who were a bit intimidated to go to office hours because a lot of what we had were large lecture courses,” he says. The seminars give students the chance to get to know faculty on a personal level, “and that is a giant step forward for people who do not know the ropes of a place like this.”

The Student Events Fund, run by the financial-aid office, makes campus happenings more affordable to lower-income students through free or discounted tickets. “They can pick them up without embarrassment,” Fitzsimmons says. “We want to make sure students have a level playing field. I had a brother at Yale and I remember at one point he was walking around for three weeks with a quarter in his pocket.” HFAI has published a 71-page booklet, Shoestring Strategies for Life @ Harvard, for students of modest means, while administrators hold meetings and events for them and send out a monthly newsletter that covers opportunities like summer internships, professional training and recruitment events, and other programs.

How else can Harvard best help these students succeed? Fitzsimmons is among those collaborating with the Graduate School of Education’s Pforzheimer professor of teaching and learning Richard J. Light (author of Making the Most of College) on a new study of first-generation students at Harvard, Duke, Brown, and Georgetown. About a dozen students from the class of 2015 who experienced successful freshmen years at these institutions will be interviewed, followed by in-depth interviews with a larger study group of first-generation students chosen randomly, along with a control group, according to Light. He also plans to evaluate efforts to support first-generation students at other selective colleges and universities, such as MIT, Dartmouth, Wellesley, and Stanford, to assess what best practices could be applied at Harvard. In addition to this emerging research and that being conducted by the Office of Institutional Research, the experiences of students admitted under HFAI in general are being studied by Paul Barreira, the new director of Harvard University Health Services (see “Brevia”). “First-generation students are an increasing presence even at America’s most selective campuses,” Light concludes. “Everyone has their personal best guess about how to help these students succeed both inside the classroom and outside as well. The point of this project is to do a serious bit of data gathering from the students themselves to learn from their actual experiences.”