Campus & Community

Financial aid leads to a record applicant pool at Harvard College

5 min read

More than 29,000 students have applied to Harvard for entrance next September, exceeding last year’s record of 27,462 and the previous record of 22,955, set the year before. In the face of an unprecedented economic downturn, financial aid has proven to be a crucial element in encouraging so many students to apply.

“Financial aid has never been more important to those we hope to attract to Cambridge,” said William R. Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid. “Thanks to the leadership of Michael Smith, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and President Drew Faust, and their unwavering commitment to our new financial aid program, many of the nation’s — and the world’s — best students responded to the clear message that Harvard remains open to talented students from all economic backgrounds.”

Almost 78 percent of this year’s applicants will apply for financial aid, compared with 73 percent last year. Harvard’s financial aid program, which was phased in over the past few years, requires no contribution from families with annual incomes below $60,000 and approximately 10 percent of income from families who make up to $180,000, assuming they do not have unusual assets.

“Financial aid applications are reviewed with great care, taking into account not only income, but a detailed analysis of the family’s total financial strength,” said Sarah C. Donahue, director of financial aid. “Families with the same nominal income often vary a great deal from one another in their need, especially in these difficult economic times,” she said.

Two other features of the new financial aid program are helpful to needy families: the elimination of loans for students and the removal of home equity from the determination of financial aid. Harvard reassesses students’ needs each year, and financial aid officers provide individual counseling to students and their families.

Other factors may also have contributed to the increase in applications. The elimination of early admission last year was accompanied by a nearly 20 percent rise in applications, and this year’s jump is another indication that it is beneficial to have more time to recruit in the fall and early winter, the latter a time Harvard staff were previously off the road conducting early admission meetings. “Over 1,500 parents and students came to the presentation we made in Washington, D.C., with Princeton and the University of Virginia, two other institutions that gave up early admission,” said Marlyn E. McGrath, director of admissions. “Attendance was also robust at joint travel events conducted in 120 locations throughout the United States in the spring and fall with Duke, Georgetown, Penn, and Stanford,” she said.

“Demographic factors are often cited in speculation about application patterns, but the overall population of American high school seniors will vary relatively little in the next decade,” said Fitzsimmons. The number of high school seniors will decline slightly from 3.32 million to 3.18 million in 2014 but will return to 3.31 million in 2019. There are significant differences regionally and among states, however, with declines in the Northeast contrasting with significant increases in such states as Florida and Texas. “Future application patterns will also depend on the demand for higher education. Economic factors may affect demand greatly, and an increasing number of students in the next decade and beyond will come from less affluent families who will need to be encouraged to consider higher education. Unless we are successful in reaching out to them, our nation will not realize its full potential,” said Fitzsimmons.

Men comprise 50.7 percent of the pool, women 49.3 percent. While geographic data is still incomplete, the numbers of students from the Greater Boston area and Massachusetts have risen as have those from the areas in the mid-Atlantic region where joint recruitment programs with Princeton and the University of Virginia were particularly effective. The South and the West had modest increases while there were slight declines in some parts of the Northeast.

The recorded numbers of minority students will rise as applications are evaluated by admissions officers, but the numbers of African-American, Asian-American, and Latino students already exceed last year’s total. “We are very grateful to the students who lead our Undergraduate Minority Recruitment Program (UMRP) and to the many alumni/ae volunteers who assist us throughout the country,” said Roger Banks, director of recruitment.

“Over the summer, our students who recruit for the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative (HFAI) worked side by side with UMRP reaching out to students with family incomes under $60,000 and $80,000. We are greatly encouraged by the results of their efforts,” added Melanie Brennand Mueller, director of the HFAI program.

“We have a remarkable team of staff members who have made it possible for us to cope with record numbers of applicants and financial aid recipients in recent years,” said Fitzsimmons. Admissions and financial aid officers are hard at work reading applications in preparation for the admissions selection meetings that begin on Jan. 30 and conclude on March 20. Notification letters to all applicants will be mailed on March 31, and e-mails will be sent later that day to those who request this additional form of notification.

“We are in the midst of planning an exciting Visiting Program for admitted students that will extend from Saturday, April 25, until Monday, April 27,” said James Pautz, director of the Freshman Visiting Program. Admitted students have until May 1 to make their final college selections.