Campus & Community

Unusual year yields positive results for Class of 2012

6 min read

With a record applicant pool of 27,462, the Class of 2012 will enter Harvard College through the most competitive admissions process in its history. “Members of the Class of 2012 experienced a year of dramatic changes in admission and financial aid policies nationwide that will reshape college access and affordability for many years to come,” said William R. Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid.

When Harvard and then Princeton and the University of Virginia eliminated their early admission programs, there was much speculation throughout higher education about what this would mean for selective college admissions. “These three institutions made the change to help level the playing field for students needing financial aid and to reduce the frenzy early admission programs create for all students. These programs can distort the secondary school experience during the junior and senior years and lead to premature college choices,” said Fitzsimmons.

Building on an earlier initiative to help students from low- and moderate-income backgrounds, Harvard announced in December sweeping changes in its financial aid program designed to make college more affordable for middle- and upper-middle-income families who were being squeezed out of higher education. The new Harvard Financial Aid Initiative has three components:

• The “Zero to Ten Percent Standard” by which families with incomes up to $60,000 will not be asked to contribute to college costs; families with incomes from $60,000 to $120,000 will pay on a sliding scale up to 10 percent; and families with incomes of $120,000 to $180,000 will be asked to pay on average 10 percent of their incomes. (As in the past, some families with incomes above $180,000 and even $200,000 will receive need-based grants if they have unusual expenses.)

• Students will no longer need to take out loans, allowing them to pursue graduate and career plans unencumbered by debt.

• Home equity will no longer be used in financial aid calculations.

In the wake of such changes, many colleges responded with a wide array of new financial aid programs of their own. “Harvard’s Financial Aid Office was open 8 a.m. until 8 p.m. weekdays during the month of April to help families sort through a sometimes bewildering assortment of need-based financial aid offers and merit awards,” said Sally Clark Donahue, director of financial aid. “Students and their families benefited greatly from the changes made at Harvard and elsewhere. We hope students currently enrolled in middle schools and high schools will be encouraged to seek a college education now that financial aid is more readily available than in the past,” she said.

With so many unprecedented changes in admissions and financial aid policies, it is very difficult for any given institution to predict its yield — the percentage of admitted students who end up accepting offers of admission. As a result of the uncertainty, many colleges, including Harvard, took slightly fewer students in April, planning to take significant numbers of students from the waiting list.

Harvard was also more cautious than usual, because the undergraduate Houses are at capacity and have no room to accommodate extra students. Current residential space constraints have been a particularly important factor in this year’s enrollment planning. Earlier, the College made the decision to suspend transfer admissions for two years. “So we took a conservative approach and admitted 110 fewer students in April,” said Fitzsimmons. “We wanted to ensure that we continued meeting our allotted target for freshman admissions as we have for several decades.

“It now appears that we will be able to admit more than 200 students from the waiting list,” said Fitzsimmons. Added Marlyn E. McGrath, director of admissions, “We have many outstanding students on the waiting list, and we are delighted that we will be able to respond positively to them.”

Currently the yield is expected to be approximately 76 percent, compared with 78 percent last year (about the average for the past decade) and 74 percent for the decade before. “We are extremely pleased with this result, especially given the unusual nature of this admission year,” said McGrath. Added Fitzsimmons, “We had modeled the effect of eliminating early admission to cost between three and seven points on the yield. We will spend a good deal of time over the summer analyzing this very positive result in the first year without early admission.”

Because so many students are yet to be admitted, it is too early to report with precision the shape of the Class of 2012. About 59 percent of the Class has so far received financial aid, compared with 49 percent at the same time last year, suggesting that the Class of 2012 could become the most economically diverse in Harvard history. The gender and ethnic breakdowns are quite similar to last year’s, as are intended fields of concentration.

Harvard’s April Visiting Program, directed by admissions officer Erin F. Fehn, once again proved why it has set the standard for such programs. Members of the faculty, administrators, and current undergraduates made the weekend a great success, and they also fielded many questions in person, on the telephone, and via e-mail during the month of April. Undergraduates — through the Undergraduate Admissions Council, the Undergraduate Minority Recruiting Program, and the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative — telephoned and e-mailed admitted students and hosted students in Cambridge. Members of the admissions staff, including David L. Evans, director of the Undergraduate Admissions Council, Roger Banks, director of recruitment, and Melanie Brennand Mueller, director of the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative, ensured that admitted students had the opportunity to learn more about Harvard before making their final college choices. Alumni/ae hosted numerous “admit parties” and telephoned admitted students in their local areas, making a critical difference in Harvard’s efforts to enroll the nation’s and the world’s finest students.

“We have already begun waiting list deliberations, having scheduled a series of meetings in anticipation of drawing extensively from the waiting list this year,” said Fitzsimmons. “We will make a large number of decisions before the end of May and will conclude the meetings at the end of June,” he said.

Recruiting for next year’s Class of 2013 has already begun. Before May is over, Harvard will have visited more than 60 cities in conjunction with four other colleges. Thousands of letters will be sent to prospective applicants as well. “Our outreach efforts never cease, including group information sessions and tours right here in Cambridge, even as we meet to conclude admission for the Class of 2012,” said McGrath.