Old Schools, New Approach

Harvard, Princeton and the University of Virginia are recruiting low-income students.
Harvard, Princeton and the University of Virginia are recruiting low-income students. (By Richard A. Lipski -- The Washington Post)
By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Admission officials from Harvard, Princeton and the University of Virginia came to the Washington area this week looking for certain types of students: lower- and middle-income.

The response was overwhelming. About 1,300 people came to a session in the District on Sunday evening, where officials encouraged students to apply and explained generous new plans to help them pay for college. About 800 people were expected to attend last night's event in Prince George's County; they had to close registration there because space was limited.

It's a new tactic for the elite schools, where the percentage of low-income students had been dwindling.

Bill Fitsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard University, said Sunday's turnout was "absolutely unprecedented. We're thrilled."

It's no wonder people are interested: College is expensive, and getting more so every year. Tuition has been rising faster than inflation. At Harvard this year, it's over $31,000, and the total cost is about $50,000 a year.

"There's quite a bit of evidence that shows that low-income students are a diminishing group at the most highly selective colleges," said David Hawkins, of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Several years ago, a national study found that just 3 percent of students came from the lowest 25 percent of income. And three-quarters of them came from the top 25 percent.

Even U-Va., a public school where the in-state tuition rate is just a fraction of what is charged in the Ivy League, found itself becoming more and more a place for rich kids. The number of freshmen from poor families was dropping steadily in the late 1990s, while the number from families earning $200,000 or more kept rising.

U-Va., Harvard and Princeton University have been out in front of a national trend to change that imbalance. Last year, they stopped early admissions policies because they were "disadvantaging the disadvantaged," Fitzsimmons said. There were proportionately fewer early applicants who were low-income, perhaps because many don't have the same access to advice on the advantages of applying early, and because early decisions can force students to choose a school without comparing financial aid offers from different colleges. At Harvard, early applicants were "pretty rich, and pretty white," Fitzsimmons said. At U-Va., the numbers of early-admission freshmen who were low-income in recent years were just one -- or none at all.

But dropping early admissions was a risky move, and this fall some of their competitors have seen big gains in applications. At Georgetown University, the number of early applicants jumped about 30 percent this year, from about 4,500 applications to 6,000 or so.

Several years ago, U-Va., Harvard and Princeton announced dramatic changes for the poorest students. For example, at U-Va., anyone from a family earning less than 200 percent of the poverty level -- roughly $40,000 a year for a family of four -- could attend for free. This year, 180 freshmen qualify. The number of undergraduates in that income group are still lower than they were a decade ago, but they are rising.

Recognizing that many low-income students are the first in their families to attend college and come from schools with less rigorous academics, U-Va. created a summer program for those students to ease the transition to college.

The amounts these schools are investing shows how much of a priority this is, Hawkins said. But the leaders have been schools with large endowments -- and enormous numbers of applicants. "Not many can follow in their footsteps."

Still, the conversation has shifted. Many colleges, including the University of Maryland, the College of William and Mary and Johns Hopkins University, have added more need-based financial aid and programs to attract low-income students.

It's a complicated problem, though, that isn't solved entirely by bank-rolling tuition. Schools are often weak in low-income areas, leaving students less prepared. They typically have counselors with enormous caseloads. And in families that haven't had a tradition of college, expectations are different.

"I come from this kind of background," said Fitzsimmons, who grew up near Harvard. "I had seen Harvard as kind of a, frankly, a place for the rich.

"People have been shocked to hear that it's free for families [who earn] under $60,000, and there's lots of financial aid for students of middle-income families."

In three years, the number of students from families earning $80,000 or less went from less than a fifth of the class to about a quarter of the class at Harvard. "That's a big increase in a three-year period," Fitzsimmons said.

So admissions officials from the three schools have taken the weeks that would normally be spent reading early-decision applications and zigzagged across the country, hitting urban and rural areas from Detroit to Little Rock to Parkersburg, W.Va. Last week, they talked with a father and son who had driven six hours to hear them.

Before the session began Sunday night, Joseph Adams, a 17-year-old from Upper Marlboro, said, " 'Anything is possible if you put your mind to it' -- that's what I want to hear."

Angela Oliver, who came from Ashburn with her 16-year-old daughter, said she had thought places like Harvard were out of reach. But lately she's been hearing about scholarships and wondered if they might be worth a closer look.

"I want to figure out what, exactly, they offer," her daughter, Alexandria Dowels, said. She said she had heard from friends, teachers and counselors that there are new financial aid packages. "Everyone's been talking about it."

The admissions officers showed slides of students studying in historic libraries and encouraged families to plug their numbers into financial aid calculators on their Web sites. At Princeton, they were told, no one has to take out loans.

Nikhil Kolluri's parents, who are worried about the cost of college because both he and his younger brother want to become doctors, had already decided that he will need to go to a public university. At 16, the Leesburg teenager already has a favorite school: U-Va.

His mother added, with a shy smile, "Harvard, also."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company