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Recruiting for Economic Diversity

8.3.17

Photograph by Glen Cooper/Getty Images


Photograph by Glen Cooper/Getty Images

As the class of 2021 approaches Harvard Yard this Augustat a time when the Justice Department threatens to challenge race-based affirmative action at Harvard and elsewherethe admissions office is busy preparing for its next application cycle. Harvard Magazine recently met with seven admissions officers to understand the students who will make up the classes of 2022 and beyond. (This is the first of a two-part report on diversity in Harvard’s admissions; see “The First-Generation Gap” for a report on Harvard student advocacy for programs tailored to attracting and encouraging the academic success of first-generation enrollees.)

Who They Are

The College already succeeds at assembling a racially diverse student body. But it’s no secret that Harvard, like other highly selective institutions, still has an economic-access problem; in January, a massive study revealed that the undergraduate student body includes almost as many students from the top 1 percent of the nation’s income distribution as from the bottom 60 percent. The College made its most serious commitment to recruiting low-income students with the launch of the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative (HFAI) in 2004, eliminating payments for tuition, room, board, and fees for students from families earning less than $40,000. That income cap has since been increased to $65,000 (above the national median household income as of 2015)—making Harvard more affordable to most American families than in-state, public universities. The share of enrolling students from families with incomes of $65,000 or less has risen from 15 percent in 2008 to 20 percent today. From 2004 to 2012, the number of Harvard undergraduates receiving Pell Grants, federal aid for low-income college students, increased by 81 percent to 17.2 percent of that class (the figure is currently 16 percent). Despite that progress, the College population still differs significantly from the country in terms of its socioeconomic profile. 

The College classes of the future, the admissions office hopes, will be more diverse across many dimensions. The College has no short-term numerical goals or quotas for increasing diversity, which makes it difficult to set clear priorities around low-income recruitment. But dean of admissions and financial aid William Fitzsimmons acknowledges that they have “a long way to go” in terms of enrolling more low-income students. In particular, the admissions office plans to recruit more heavily from rural areas of the country; though the admission officers did not provide numerical goals, admissions officer Mike Esposito specifically mentions places like West Virginia and southwest Missouri. There’s compelling evidence that elite colleges have neglected those regions: according to 2013 study conducted by Stanford professor Caroline Hoxby and Larsen professor of public policy and management Christopher Avery, high-achieving, low-income students from small metropolitan and rural areas don’t apply to elite colleges because they don’t know about those colleges’ financial-aid programs, and haven’t met anyone who attends them. Only 8.7 percent of the class of 2020 comes from rural areas, compared to 30.5 percent from cities and 60.8 percent from suburbs.

Beyond economic and regional diversity, admissions officers highlighted the importance of diversity in students’ interests. “Ten years ago we had about 90 concentrators in engineering and computer science, and we have about 950 now,” Fitzsimmons says. But “one of the really, most frightening things that you can see in the country in the past 20 years is how few high-school students say that they want to study anything even resembling the humanities.” He hopes students will take advantage of the University’s many opportunities in various disciplines, such as the new theater, dance, and media concentration

How to Find Them 

One of Harvard’s principal recruiting strategies is making students the face of the admissions office. “Recruiting is an inexact science at best,” says Jake Kaufman, associate director of financial aid and senior admissions officer. “Ultimately, we’re looking for talent. I think there are just a lot of barriers to that talent finding its way to us, so all these recruitment efforts are to remove all those barriers.” To that end, the office employs student interns to write for a blog about campus life, and students are also present on the College’s social-media accounts; the Harvard Admissions Snapchat account features students sharing their days and answering questions. Every winter break, Esposito says, 10 to 15 students visit approximately 10 schools (including their own) and community organizations to encourage students to attend college in general and share their experiences from Harvard, a program started by the University Minority Recruitment Program in the 1970s. Harvard also has the “Return to Middle School” program, sending current students to middle schools to discuss the college-application process. (Such student-ambassador programs are common among universities; in the 2014-2015 academic year, 319 Yale students visited 722 high schools to recruit low-income students.)

Officers also stress the importance of early college awareness in general: they created a publication for students in eighth to tenth grades featuring the perspectives of Harvard students, to explain “what is college, and what might it offer them,” says Niki Applebaum-Johnson, assistant director of financial aid, senior admissions officer, and director of the Harvard First Generation Program, which provides information about Harvard’s resources to prospective first-generation college students.

Accessibility on a National Scale

More broadly, Harvard hopes to use its internal efforts to animate a national conversation about college access and affordability through its participation in the American Talent Initiative (ATI), a network of high-performing colleges that aim to increase their enrollment of Pell Grant recipients. By 2025, the program aims “to attract, enroll, and graduate an additional 50,000 lower-income students at the 270 colleges and universities that consistently graduate at least 70 percent of their students in six years.” As noted, Harvard itself doesn’t have a concrete, numerical goal for its enrollment of low-income students, and instead is participating in ATI as part of a broader institutional ethos of promoting college affordability. 

President Drew Faust attended a meeting for the presidents of ATI member institutions in February, and Robert Iuliano ’83, senior vice president and general counsel, attended one for senior leaders. “The point of ATI,” he says, “is to tap the cross-fertilization that comes with this collection of colleges and universities.” While Harvard “has had a sustained push, for a long time, about access,” it does not have specific targets or quotas for enrollment of students from any background, he continues. Instead, the University’s central goal is to ensure that all high-school students understand Harvard’s affordability—and to tell them, “Please, consider higher education” in general.

All of these components—financial aid, recruiting, and collaboration with other schools—are part of Harvard’s attempts to increase the socioeconomic diversity of its student body. “We have a long way to go,” Fitzsimmons says, but eventually he believes “we will get there.” Without quantifiable goals, it’s difficult to know what “there” looks like—but it will likely be more diverse than “here.” 

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Assembling the science and engineering complex in Allston (with work on the district energy plant distantly visible to the rear of the site)

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