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Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Harvard Launches Initiative To Connect With High-Achieving, Low-Income Students

Harvard University's Massachusetts Hall. (Wikimedia Commons)

Harvard University’s Massachusetts Hall. (Wikimedia Commons)

Harvard College Connection” is a new initiative aimed at encouraging low-income students to apply to elite colleges. Launching this fall, it uses social media, videos and traditional outreach to help students know that an Ivy League education is within reach.

William Fitzsimmons, the dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard, joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to discuss the new program.

Since 2004, the university has used a radically simplified financial aid program: Families that make $65,000 or less per year contribute nothing towards the cost of tuition, room, board or fees.

But Fitzsimmons says the college wanted to make things easier for middle class families as well.

“We have close to 70 percent, actually, of our students on some kind of financial aid here — a quarter of the students now are $80,000 and under,” Fitzsimmons says. “This is a different Harvard. What we need to do is connect these students that we have here now, who are living the experience, with other students out there. We’d love to have them come to Harvard. We’d love to have them go to college.”




So what are schools like Harvard doing to get that message out to students like Edgar? Harvard has long sent recruiters and search letters out to kids, and now through the new initiative the Harvard College Connection, admissions officers and hopefully Harvard students will reach out on social media to get out the word that first of all, because of recent drastic tuition changes, Harvard is free for families making under $65,000, and it can be only $15,000 a year for families making as much as 150,000.

In fact, Harvard claims that for 90 percent of Americans, going to Harvard could be cheaper than going to many state schools. William Fitzsimmons is Harvard's dean of admissions and financial aid. So Dean, why use social media?

WILLIAM FITZSIMMONS: We believe that by using social media as sort of a new campaign, not only can we get more students to come to Harvard from modest income backgrounds, but we also said that they should consider going to other Ivy institutions, they should go to other public and private institutions.

YOUNG: So you are trying to bridge this gap of understanding, in other words getting the message out to these high-achieving high school seniors from the bottom quarter of the country's income distribution, that in fact they can afford to go to Harvard. But what about the criticism beyond getting that message out that the way Harvard and other Ivy League schools consider students needs to change, that Harvard's admission office still uses legacy status in admission decisions; that means that students whose parents have not just gone to university but have attended Harvard have a leg up; that Harvard still uses the SAT despite the data that suggests that SAT scores correlate strongly with family income - the more the family makes, the higher the scores.

This is criticism from students in the Harvard Crimson. What do you think about that, about changing not just the outreach but the way you look at prospective students?

FITZSIMMONS: Well, we're fully aware of this, and in many respects I've lived it. I grew up 15 miles south of Boston. My parents hadn't gone to college. The high school I attended - now, remember, this was the old days, didn't like Harvard at all. In fact the first two teachers I asked to write recommendations wouldn't do it because they said Harvard was a bunch of communists, a bunch of atheists, a bunch of rich snobs, that if you - it was anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, that if you went there you would flunk out, and you would lose your soul.

But one of the things I looked at immediately was, at that point and now, Harvard typically has the highest graduation rate in the country.

YOUNG: It sounds as if one of the things that maybe your office still has to address is almost a culture war, a sense on the part of high-achieving kids from lower-income families that Harvard may not want them.

FITZSIMMONS: You have actually, you've hit on the nub of one of our biggest problems. Now that we have close to 70 percent, actually, of our students on some kind of financial aid here, you know, a quarter of the students now are $80,000 and under, this is a different Harvard. What we need to do is to connect these students that we have here now, who are living the experience, with other students out there.

We'd love to have them come to Harvard. We'd love to have them go to college.

YOUNG: William Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard talking about the school's new initiative, the Harvard College Connection. Dean Fitzsimmons, thanks so much.

FITZSIMMONS: Thank you, Robin.

YOUNG: So to learn more, go to By the way, quick heads up, tomorrow on HERE AND NOW author Joseph Finder knows his conspiracy theories, that's what he writes about in his novels, but he says if you read the newly re-issued "Marina and Lee," you will know that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. That's tomorrow. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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