Campus & Community

Talent scouts

long read

Admissions road trip looks for top students

Late one morning in mid-November, William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 looked for his seat on a jetliner at Boston’s Logan Airport. Moving down the aisle, magazine in hand and wheeling a carry-on, he had the weary certainty of a seasoned traveler.

Fitzsimmons is dean of admissions for Harvard College, and a veteran of 35 years of wide-ranging recruitment travel. He’s made school visits in suburban Boston and has done student searches all over the globe, including in Tibet, Turkey, Thailand, Indonesia, and Jordan. In two of the past three years, he’s scouted for freshmen in mainland China.

On top of that, Fitzsimmons has been married 36 years to a former Delta airlines flight attendant, whose free miles made even wider travel easier. The Harvard dean — trim from years of running — converses easily about the charms of Darjeeling or the lure of rural Ireland.

Still, he said, “Being on an airplane lost its luster a long time ago.”

But recruitment has not lost any luster. Fitzsimmons keeps his travel briefcase stuffed with admissions data sheets and background reading on his destinations, and in many weeks puts in 80 hours or more.

With perverse fondness, he calls the recruitment and admissions process — busy in the spring, crazy in the summer, wild in the fall, and insane in the winter — “a lunatic fringe of labor intensity” for his staff of 65 in admissions and financial aid.

This year, Harvard recruiters traveled to 127 U.S. cities in a search for promising students as part of joint recruitment trips. In the past 20 years, Harvard has routinely traveled with Duke, Georgetown, and Stanford universities as well as the University of Pennsylvania.

Joint recruitment “opens things up,” said Fitzsimmons of collegial travel with his counterparts. “Frankly, we all benefit.”

Harvard officials also visit additional cities on their own and return to many of the joint-travel cities to visit alumni and schools.

For admissions staffers, crunch time is starting now, since reading has begun on applications due by Jan. 1. Last year, about 23,000 rolled in. After months of analysis, discussion, arguing, and work about a tenth of those applicants will get offers of admission.

On the plane a few seats away, a red-faced toddler burst into tears. Said Fitzsimmons, “I know how he feels.”
Deans talking shop

The trip that began Nov. 12 came at the shoulder of the recruitment season, when admissions teams at many other institutions are hunkered down with the first wave of early-admission applications. So this week, “we have the world to ourselves,” said Fitzsimmons.

The journey also added a new twist to interuniversity cooperation. It was the first joint recruitment trip with Princeton University and the University of Virginia, the two prominent schools that this year followed Harvard’s lead in dropping early admissions.

Harvard’s program was a nonbinding early-action program. Programs at Princeton and Virginia required students admitted early to agree on a binding decision.

All three schools think that ending early admissions may bring application numbers down in the short term, but in the long term will lead to freshman classes that are “more economically diverse and qualitatively better,” said Fitzsimmons.

Harvard announced the decision in September 2006. Officials argued that it would increase the diversity of freshman classes, turn down the heat on the feverish admissions process, and to reach more students of modest means. This year, there is a single application deadline, Jan. 1.

Joining Fitzsimmons on the Nov. 12-19 trip were the deans of admissions from Princeton, Janet Lavin Rapelye, and from Virginia, John A. “Jack” Blackburn.

Among them, the deans will have a say in admitting freshman classes numbering about 6,000 students next year. In the next few months, they’ll also have a say in rejecting another 50,000 applicants.

The three are old friends, and have almost 80 years of combined experience. Their talk was wide-ranging (rural poverty, the longevity of sneakers, the quality of coal in China). And there were mutual discoveries — for instance, the shrimp grits that appeared on one Abingdon, Va., menu.

But conversation often slipped comfortably into the arcane world of university recruitment. There was talk of “squeeze plays” (the attempt by some other colleges to pressure promising students); applications fraud (Blackburn told a funny story about a test-taker in Pakistan who was a master of 12 disguises); and the oddities of admissions-fever mail.

One Harvard applicant, Fitzsimmons said, sent in a letter of recommendation once a day for three months. Another mailed in all her corrected papers, going back to elementary school. Coming in with Harvard applications every year are 1,800 CDs or audio tapes. Then there are the custom-made Veritas seals made of chocolate.

While applications are flowing in, “the food is really good,” said Blackburn. Any other time, he added, it’s doubtful “anyone would buy me a sandwich.”

By the end of this year, four teams of three from Harvard, Princeton, and Virginia will have visited 19 cities in the South, West, and Midwest.

Eliminating early action “was the right thing to do,” said Fitzsimmons, who earlier last year made his case to interim Harvard president Derek Bok. (Bok quickly agreed that “early admissions programs tend to advantage the advantaged.”)

But Harvard could face short-term consequences, he said, including a slump in the number of applications, and a lower “yield.” That’s the percentage of admitted students who accept a Harvard offer, which now hovers around 80 percent.

Still, in three to five years the early-action decision could mean a “stronger and more diverse” student body, predicted Fitzsimmons. “We can actually do good, and at the same time do well.”

‘We don’t all ride the white horse’

All three deans agreed on a weeklong recruitment trip to parts of rural Virginia and West Virginia, and later to Washington, D.C., and its suburbs. They made joint slide-show presentations to about 3,000 parents and students, and talked to hundreds of school counselors.

Attendance varied. In Charleston, about 50 students and parents showed up. In Washington, D.C., more than 1,300 attended the joint slide shows — a record. In the previous 20 years of Harvard recruitment travel, the largest crowds were only a little over 1,000.

The first five days of the admissions tour focused on rural western Virginia, and on the little towns and lonely stretches of nearby West Virginia.

The starting line was sleepy Abingdon, a town of 8,000 on State Route 19. It’s 22 miles from the nearest NASCAR track, 30 miles from a Starbucks, and 231 miles from an Au Bon Pain. In the center of town there’s a monument to Confederate dead, and at the local fly-fishing store two visitors were advised, “Step outside if you need to spit.”

Then there was Bluefield, Parkersburg/Vienna, and Charleston — all in West Virginia, a state that sends an average of only three students a year to Harvard.

On one level, the mission of part of the week, said Fitzsimmons, was “to get students from really out-of-the-way places.”

On another level was getting the word out about dropping early-decision programs. “It seemed to us we were missing out on some good students who weren’t caught up in the early frenzy,” said Fitzsimmons.

Those good students, he said, are often in a demographic that Harvard is eager to tap: students from households with low and modest incomes. “We don’t all get to ride the white horse,” said Fitzsimmons, who grew up as the son of a Weymouth, Mass., convenience store owner.

To find those good students, staffers at Harvard Admissions have developed geo-demographic tools that vet localities for median income and other indicators from ZIP codes “right down to the census tracts,” said Fitzsimmons.

Abingdon, in the heart of a county where median household incomes hover around $30,000, seemed like a good place to find students in need of financial aid. So did the places in West Virginia, which are strung along highways bordered by high black coal piles, tobacco sheds, rail yards, rock quarries, and trailer parks.

On the way to Parkersburg, Black Angus cattle grazed on rocky slopes, and in the distance, round old mountains were tufted with fall-colored hardwoods. One billboard proclaimed, “Coal Keeps the Lights On.” Mixed with the hill-hanging mist were faint smells of tar, gas, coal, and burning diesel.

“You come out to West Virginia to see where these people come from, what kind of worlds they occupy,” said Fitzsimmons. “You’re going to get a much more complete view of the different perspectives they can add to Harvard.”
Fighting ‘sticker shock’

Every evening, in a succession of hotel ballrooms, the three deans hosted parent-student information sessions. “We’re trying to talk to both audiences who affect choice,” said Fitzsimmons. “And as college costs go up, we really need to get parents in the room.”

Early the next morning, they held breakfasts for local school counselors — the coterie of overworked professionals that Fitzsimmons likes to call “our suppliers.”

To both groups, the core messages were the same: Very fine schools like Harvard, Princeton, and Virginia are open to diversity, are interested in out-of-the-way places, and are affordable.

“Sticker shock keeps away many people who might have been able to attend easily,” said Fitzsimmons. “And $7,000 is sticker shock to some of these students.”

In the past six years, he said, Harvard has ratcheted up its financial aid by about 65 percent to more than $135 million, a figure that covers all forms of financial aid, including grants, jobs, and loans. Some kind of aid goes to 70 percent of its 6,600 undergraduates.

Scholarship help averages $32,000 a year, and in the past decade average debt for graduating seniors has fallen from $17,000 to a median of $6,700. And a new program makes a Harvard education free for students from households that bring in $60,000 a year or less.

At Princeton, there’s a no-loan policy for financial aid. Two classes in a row have graduated debt-free, said Rapelye.

Virginia’s AccessUVa program guarantees meeting 100 percent of demonstrated financial need for all 13,000 of its undergraduates. Blackburn told one room full of rapt parents and nervous students: “Don’t let the costs stop you.”

After the meeting in Abingdon, Amanda Phillips — a 17-year-old senior at Abingdon High School who wants to be a neurosurgeon — was surprised at how accessible Harvard suddenly seemed.

“A lot of people don’t even pick up an application because they think the expenses are out of reach,” she said, with her parents sitting nearby. “It’s definitely doable, and I’m so thankful that a roomful of people tonight heard that it’s definitely doable, if you’re willing to do the work for it.”

Fitzsimmons and the other deans had another message for rural students — that going away to school is not that daunting. But they are up against a fact of college life: that 90 percent of students go to schools located within 500 miles of home, and 80 percent to schools within 200 miles of home.

Phillips is ready to leave Abingdon, where local history is rich, but where Friday nights are limited to a movie and bowling. Rural Virginia, she said, has “made me ready to experience something completely different.”
Debunking stereotypes

The three deans had another core message for these rural towns: Stereotypes happen. “We find versions of this all over the world,” said Fitzsimmons, who made a point of broadening his Boston accent for the laughs — and who used his own personal story (poor kid, one-time truant, hockey player) as a corrective to myths that flourish among the Ivies.

Harvard isn’t a collection of eggheads, he said more than once. It’s a place where sports — 41 Division I teams — flourish; where religion is taken seriously; and where freshman seminars, house living, and a diverse student body add up to a small-college experience that encourages big ideas.

Stereotypes haunt Princeton too, said Rapelye. “We’re still overcoming the white-male-all-rich image,” she said — despite 54 percent of the student body getting some kind of financial aid, and a freshman class in which 11 percent are the first in their families to ever attend college.

The evening meeting in Bluefield, W.Va., was at the local Holiday Inn, where Kelsey’s pub offers country-flavored karaoke and where just off the lobby guests can shoulder a toy rifle and play a Deer Hunter USA video game.

The next morning, 17-year-old Allison Forlines stood outside Bluefield High School, the home of the Beavers.

Harvard, she agreed, called up a definite stereotype in her hill-nestled town. “Pretty much either very wealthy people go there or very, very smart, intellectual people go there,” said Forlines, a Harvard aspirant. “That’s it.”

Fitzsimmons had another message: Apply early, by Dec. 1 if you can, “so we can spread out our reading load.” He described the intense seasonality of the admissions process, in which early readers, academic reviewers, regional subcommittees, and a full committee of 35 exhaustively vet applications.

In Charleston, W.Va., a state capital bisected by the muddy Kanawha River, 17-year-old Jack Gang — a senior at sunny, modern George Washington High School — just about had his Harvard application ready. The Ivy was one of 13 schools he was applying to, and was his first choice.

Born in Wuhan, China, Gang and his parents moved to the United States when he was 8, and since then he’s been busy. He’s a concert violinist and composer, an AP Scholar (with distinction), a National Merit finalist, and a National AP Scholar. Not incidentally, he is also the world’s eighth-ranked player in Guitar Hero, a video game.

Gang, a veteran of nine AP exams and a national math competitor, is also “80 points off perfect” in the SATs, where a perfect score is 2,400, said his guidance counselor, Billie Walker. “He’s very funny, he takes himself very lightly, [and] I think Harvard would be the perfect place for him.”

That’s ultimately up to Fitzsimmons, and to the 35 members of the full admissions committee, where there are no quotas — even for underrepresented states — and where one-person, one-vote is the rule.

After decisions are made in March, the process starts all over again in April, with mailings to 80,000 prospective high school juniors, and a new round of springtime recruitment trips.

And why not, said Fitzsimmons of the hours and miles that it takes to attract a strong new freshman class. “We’re making a decision for all time.”