In the first year without early action, more than 27,000 students have applied to Harvard for entrance next September, shattering the previous record of 22,955 set this past year. Harvard eliminated its early action program starting with the Class of 2012 because early admission programs tend to disadvantage students from modest economic backgrounds and often pressure students from across the economic spectrum to make premature college choices.
“Students and their secondary school counselors responded positively to this change, designed to help reduce the frenzy that surrounds college admissions today,” said William R. Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid. “Eliminating early action also allowed more time in the late fall for us to reach out to students who might not otherwise think about applying to Harvard,” he said.
Joint travel with Princeton University and the University of Virginia (both of which have also eliminated early admission) met with an overwhelming reception in November, normally a time when all three institutions would be off the road conducting early admission selection meetings.
Harvard also announced on Dec. 10 a sweeping change in financial aid for middle-income families, establishing a zero to 10 percent of income standard for families with earnings up to $180,000 a year, removing home equity from financial aid calculations, and eliminating loans for all students. This change may have contributed to a portion of the record application total, but applications had been running significantly ahead of last year’s pace before that announcement.
“There is no way to determine with complete accuracy why applicant pools vary from year to year,” said Fitzsimmons. “Various factors influence individual decisions, and it usually takes three to five years in the admissions and financial aid world before speculation about trends can be verified. Demographics also can come into play as there were somewhat more graduating seniors this year in America. Nevertheless, we are pleased to see that our first year without early action is off to a good start,” he said.
Previous enhancements to Harvard’s financial aid program may also have been a factor. Three years ago, Harvard eliminated the parental contribution for families with incomes of less than $40,000, extended this benefit to those with $60,000 incomes the next year, and reduced the contribution for families with incomes from $60,000 to $80,000. “It often takes several years to spread the word about changes in financial aid,” said Sarah C. Donahue, director of financial aid. “We have made great progress over the past three years with a 33 percent increase in numbers of students covered under these enhancements, but we are still reaching new audiences with our expanded travel efforts,” she said.
Harvard’s outreach begins in the spring with trips to over 60 cities accompanied by Duke, Georgetown, Penn, and Stanford. The joint travel program, led by its director Grace Cheng, continues in the fall, and this year a total of 127 cities were visited in all 50 states and Puerto Rico. “Our joint travel program continues to be a critical element of our recruitment,” said Marlyn McGrath, director of admissions. “Direct mail is also important, and we use the College Board’s and ACT’s ‘search’ options to reach students as well. Over 90 percent of our enrolled minority students and 70 percent of all students were originally identified on our ‘search’ lists,” she said.
Women comprise slightly more than 50 percent of the pool this year and the geographic pattern is similar to last year’s, with the exception of larger-than-average increases in parts of the mid-Atlantic and the South (especially Florida). The recorded numbers of students from minority backgrounds will rise as applications are evaluated by admission officers, but the numbers of African-American and Latino applicants already exceed last year’s totals by a considerable margin. “We are delighted to see continued progress and once again we owe a debt of gratitude to the dedicated students who work with the Undergraduate Minority Recruitment Program (UMRP), as well as the many alumni/ae who assist us at the local level throughout the country,” said Roger Banks, director of minority recruitment.
While it is still too early to tell if the gains of the past three years will continue for students with incomes under $60,000 and $80,000 covered by the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative (HFAI), students working for HFAI since last summer alongside UMRP have had a productive recruitment season, reaching out to students by telephone, e-mail, and regular mail. “We are encouraged by the responses of students contacted by HFAI, and we are grateful to our undergraduates for all their hard work,” said Melanie Brennand Mueller, director of the HFAI Program.
Over the coming weeks, the Admissions Committee will be reading applications and meeting to make the final decisions on the Class of 2012. The meetings extend from Jan. 30 to March 20. Letters informing applicants of the committee’s decisions will be sent on March 31 and they will be notified later that day by e-mail if they requested e-mail. Admitted students have until May 1 to make their final college selections.