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Harvard launches effort to encourage more low-income high school students to apply to elite colleges

Posted by Matt Rocheleau  October 24, 2013 02:00 PM

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Harvard University announced a new campaign today to encourage more low-income high school students to apply to Harvard and other elite schools, which have been criticized in recent years for not doing enough to recruit and admit poor students.

The Harvard College Connection initiative will feature a range of online outreach – including through a new website, social media and video – along with more traditional forms of outreach that will highlight information about financial aid options at Harvard and other schools and will help guide them through the application process.

Many students and their families look at tuition rates and are quickly scared off before ever applying because they don’t realize what financial aid options are available.

However, financial aid can drastically reduce the amount a student pays and some students can qualify to attend event the most-selective colleges, including Harvard, for free, officials said.

“Too many of our nation’s outstanding students, particularly those from modest economic backgrounds, fail to attend college or ‘undermatch’ themselves by not considering selective colleges where their chances of graduation would be better,” William R. Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid, said in a statement.

The university said it will hire additional staff to oversee the operation, which formally launches this fall.

Harvard said it already sends admission officers each year to more than 140 cities and towns to meet with potential students, their parents, and high school guidance counselors.

“To ensure that talented low-income students understand their opportunities, we need to meet them where they are,” Fitzsimmons said. “To date, that has meant literally traveling to meet them in cities and towns across the nation.

“Going forward, we will meet them both in person and online,” he added.

The university has had webpages, for a number of years, that included some information about applying to Harvard, but the webpages for admissions and financial aid were run separately. Both were old, not always user-friendly and static. Potential applicants had to search themselves to find the webpages.

Through digital-outreach, the new initiative will aim to draw more eyes to the new website and the information contained there, including about admissions, financial aid and other topics that potential applicants will likely be interested in.

About one-third of high-achieving high school seniors from the bottom quarter of America’s income distribution attended one of the country’s 238 most selective colleges in a recent year, compared with 78 percent of those from the top quarter, according to Harvard.

University officials said they are basing the new campaign on research that has demonstrated that many students attend high schools without adequate counseling about college choices and without being told that “relatively inexpensive interventions can help.”

Research has shown that outreach via text messages and Facebook can help encourage students to attend college, Harvard officials said.

“We still have much to learn about how to use the power of social media in encouraging greater access to higher education,” Perry Hewitt, chief digital officer at Harvard, who will work directly on the new initiative, said in a statement. “Certain media may work better with some students than others — and we may also find that some ‘old-fashioned’ outreach such as mail, telephone calls, and travel is more effective — or can be enhanced by new approaches.”

Staff working with the Harvard College Connection will urge high school students to consider flagship public institutions and other public and private colleges near their home that have high graduation rates and strong advising support.

While geographic diversity can be important for both applications and admissions offices, “it remains important for students to become more aware of the opportunities that await them at nearby colleges,” Harvard said.

Marlyn E. McGrath, director of admissions at Harvard, said that the initiative will not only aim to attract rising seniors, but also younger high school students.

“We will encourage them to take rigorous high school courses as well as to make thoughtful college plans, thus increasing the numbers of students in the pipeline for all colleges in the years ahead,” she said in a statement.

The university said its admissions and financial aid office will partner with the College Board and Harvard researchers to share the results of the initiative publicly, including for the benefit of other colleges.

Officials at Harvard declined to say how much the university is spending to launch the new outreach campaign.

Harvard officials admitted that initiative will likely benefit the university’s own efforts to attract more low-income students, but they insisted their primary focus “is to increase college matriculation and graduation rates nationally for such students,” not just at Harvard.

Still, the university on Thursday highlighted how Harvard student families with annual incomes lower than $65,000, which represent 20 percent of the university’s student body, “pay nothing toward the cost of tuition, room, board, or fees.”

Student families at Harvard with incomes between $65,000 to $150,000 pay rates equal to zero to 10 percent of their annual income, officials said.

“It costs the same or less for 90 percent of American families to attend Harvard compared with flagship public universities in students’ home states,” the university said in the release.

Matt Rocheleau can be reached at mjrochele@gmail.com. Looking for more coverage of area colleges and universities? Go to our Your Campus pages.

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