Campus & Community

Record numbers apply to College

5 min read

A record 19,520 students have applied for admission to the college this year for entrance to the Class of 2006 next September. For the 11th time in the past 12 years, applications rose. Last year, 19,014 students applied for admission; 10 years ago 13,029 applied.

“We are delighted that so many students are interested in Harvard, both this year and increasingly over the past decade,” said William R. Fitzsimmons, dean of Admissions and Financial Aid.

A number of factors have combined to attract more applicants to the College in recent years. The foundation for this success has been the recently completed Harvard Capital Campaign, which has provided resources that have enhanced the excellence of every aspect of undergraduate education.

Harvard’s pre-eminent faculty, the principal reason so many of the nation’s and world’s best students come here, now have access to better information technology, laboratories, classrooms, and libraries – to the great benefit of undergraduates. The excellence of the undergraduates is also cited by prospective applicants as a major aspect of Harvard’s appeal. “Simply meeting Harvard’s remarkable students during visits to the campus – observing them in classes and interacting with them in dining hall conversations, rooming groups, and other informal settings – can provide a powerful inducement to apply,” said Fitzsimmons. In addition, the refurbishment of the physical plant – freshman dormitories and dining hall, the House system, and athletic facilities has been noted by prospective students.

The single largest component of the Capital Campaign was financial aid, with a goal of $200 million. Ultimately that goal was exceeded, with close to $230 million finally raised. Under the leadership of Dean Jeremy R. Knowles, the undergraduate financial aid program has been enhanced twice in the past few years, reducing students’ debt burdens substantially, and increasing the average annual scholarship by $4,000 to a total of more than $20,000 per year.

Nearly two-thirds of Harvard undergraduates receive some form of financial aid. “Harvard students are admitted solely on their academic, extracurricular, and personal qualifications without regard to their family’s financial resources. Harvard’s need-based financial aid program is crucial to the College’s ability to attract outstanding students from every background,” said Sarah C. Donahue, director of financial aid. The Financial Aid Office distributed close to $100 million in financial aid to undergraduates this year in scholarships, loans, and jobs.

Over the past decade, recruitment in the form of admissions staff travel, direct mail, and alumni/ae outreach has been enhanced and refocused. The centerpiece of these new efforts has been “Joint Travel” in which Harvard and (usually) three other universities visit 110 cities each year (55 of those in the spring, reflecting a shift in timing due to changes in student demand). Each city’s visit begins with an evening meeting for parents and students followed by a breakfast meeting the next day for high school counselors. Traditional high school visits and college nights still occur, coordinated with joint travel and timed to be effective for a particular city or region.

Demographic factors have also had an effect on Harvard’s and other colleges’ rising application numbers. Almost every year since 1993 there have been larger numbers of 18-year-olds in the population, and this trend will continue until 2008. But this factor alone can account for only a relatively small percentage of the rise in application numbers. In 1992-93, 2,477,000 graduated from high school, while this year, 2,876,000 are expected to do so. “Indeed such increases occur disproportionately in less affluent communities, and unless more is done to support and improve primary and secondary school education, a large percentage of students will drop out of school before graduation or otherwise be unprepared for college,” said Marlyn McGrath Lewis, director of admissions.

Women comprise 49.5 percent of the applicant pool this year, about the same percentage as last year. Preliminary statistics indicate significant interest from minority students. Proposed academic concentration numbers look similar to those of last year.

While there was much speculation in the media that the events of Sept. 11 would lead to a dramatic downturn in college applications this year, especially to institutions far from home, the pattern for the United States largely resembles last year’s. Applicants from most areas remained the same or increased, with particularly impressive gains in the Midwest, the South, and New England. On the other hand, there was a 6 percent decrease in applications from abroad, and some regions in the western United States showed slight decreases.

The recent economic downturn has led to a higher proportion of students expressing an interest in financial aid. “Without Harvard’s generous financial aid program, it is likely that our applicant pool would not be as strong as it is,” said Donahue.

The Admissions Committee, both staff members and members of the teaching faculty, is now hard at work reading applications. The selection meetings began in early February and end in late March. Notification letters will be mailed at 12:01 a.m., Wednesday, April 3. Students must reply by May l.