Nearly 35,000 students have applied for admission to Harvard College’s Class of 2015 for entry in August, an increase of nearly 15 percent over last year’s record 30,489, and of more than 50 percent since 22,955 applied four years ago. Over this period, Harvard has significantly enhanced its need-based financial aid program to ensure that talented students from low- and middle-income backgrounds will find Harvard affordable and accessible.

Harvard College’s financial aid program requires no contribution from families with annual incomes below $60,000, and asks, on average, no more than 10 percent of income from families with typical assets who make up to $180,000. Currently, 70 percent of students receive some form of financial aid.

The worldwide economic downturn of the past three years seems to have been a major factor in spurring increases in applications at Harvard and peer institutions.

“As we have witnessed during previous periods of economic uncertainty, students and their families are particularly anxious to seek the best and most affordable option for higher education,” said William R. Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid. “Harvard’s financial aid enhancements came none too soon for families who are facing daunting financial challenges, including job losses, underemployment, increasing medical expenses, underwater mortgages, and home foreclosures. The unwavering commitment of President Drew Faust, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Michael Smith, and Dean of Harvard College Evelynn Hammonds to ensure that Harvard remains open to everyone regardless of financial need is greatly appreciated by current and future Harvard undergraduates.”

Two other factors also may have played a role in this year’s record total. The new School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, under the leadership of Dean Cherry Murray, continues to attract greater numbers of students who aspire to study engineering, computer science, and related fields. In addition, more students than ever before, nearly 99 percent, are using online application services. Such services enable students, especially those with few counseling or economic resources, to apply to college more easily.

Applications increased from all geographic areas, but particularly from the South, the Midwest, the Mountain states, the Pacific region, and abroad. Gender breakdown is close to last year’s 50/50 ratio, and minority numbers have continued to rise.

The admissions selection meetings begin Jan. 25. Applications are reviewed in a careful, individualized process in which applications are discussed and compared by members of the Admissions Committee throughout the duration of the meetings.

Notification letters to all applicants will be mailed on March 30, and emails will be sent later that day to the 92 percent who have requested electronic notification.

Admitted students will be invited to visit Cambridge from April 16 to 18 for a comprehensive introduction to life at Harvard. They will have until May 1 to make their final college choices.

Eyes on the stage