Online Extra: The Thinking at Harvard, West Point, and Smith

Elite colleges are looking to expand their intakes of low-income students. Here's how three big names are doing it

By William Symond

Amherst isn't acting in a vacuum. Many elite colleges also have aggressive programs aimed at attracting and admitting more low-income students. Here's a closer look at three of the most prominent programs:


Until recently, Harvard University has been perhaps the most glaring example of an elite college's failure to welcome low-income students. With an endowment of $25.9 billion -- far larger than that of any other university in the U.S. or abroad -- Harvard clearly has the resources to educate the poor.

Yet only about 10% of its undergraduates are eligible to receive federal Pell Grants, which are usually awarded to students from families earning less than $40,000 a year. At Amherst, 15% of the students get Pells, and President Anthony Marx is aiming to boost that to 25% of future classes.

But now, Harvard's controversial president, Lawrence Summers, is on a campaign to give low-income students far greater representation at America's most prestigious university. "If Harvard is only for the children of those who have been successful, we will lose the social mobility that has always been America's strength," argues the former U.S. Treasury Secretary. "I'd like Harvard to look as much like America as possible."


  To meet that lofty goal, Summers has launched a four-pronged program. The first step, announced in 2004, was to eliminate the expectation that parents in families earning under $40,000 a year contribute anything toward a Harvard education. Previously, they had been expected to pay an average of $2,300 a year. "This is a clear and unambiguous commitment," says Summers.

Second, Harvard has stepped up its efforts to recruit low-income students. "Instead of targeting the rich Zip Codes, we're targeting the poor Zip Codes," says Summers.

Harvard's admissions officers -- led by Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William Fitzsimmons -- are visiting more low-income high schools. And Fitzsimmons has begun to hire Harvard students to contact promising low-income high school students over the summer and encourage them to apply. Last summer, they reached a stunning 12,000 students, resulting in "a big jump in the applicant pool," according to Fitzsimmons. "When you go out with a welcoming message, you're going to attract a lot of people," adds the wiry dean.

Third, Summers is pressing Fitzsimmons and his staff to look at SAT scores with a big grain of salt. "An SAT score means one thing if the student comes from an affluent school, where there are SAT prep courses, and a very different thing if the student comes from a disadvantaged background where there was no SAT classes of any kind," Summers says.


  Fitzsimmons and his staff are also looking at other things traditionally expected of Harvard applicants -- like polished applications and a drop-dead list of extracurricular accomplishments -- in a new light.

"Often students from poorer backgrounds may not have had the opportunity for glitzy extracurricular accomplishments because they weren't even available," says Fitzsimmons. "We have to look for other evidence of a person's potential."

Similarly, Fitzsimmons says some of the richest applicants are now hiring counselors who charge up to $30,000 to personally guide students through the college-application process, starting as early as the 7th grade. In sharp contrast, "There are plenty of low-income schools with no money at all for college counselors," he says. "It's a thorny problem."

Finally, Summers has also started a summer program -- the Crimson Summer Academy -- to give disadvantaged high-school students a leg up when applying to elite colleges. Last year some 50 high school students from Boston took part in the program, which includes classes, workshops, field trips, and college-planning sessions. And during the school year, they can work with tutors from Harvard. "Ultimately, we're hoping to expand this further [beyond Boston]," says Summers.


  Harvard's program has only been in place for one full admissions cycle -- for the class that entered Harvard in September, 2005 -- but Summers and Fitzsimmons are encouraged. Last fall's entering class had 299 students from families earning less than $60,000 a year vs. 246 the year before -- an increase of 22%.

Still, Fitzsimmons, who has worked in Harvard admissions since 1972, is guarded in his optimism. "We have to be realistic," he admits. "Social forces are powerful, and in many rural and urban communities, the opportunities are shrinking rather than growing." Not even Harvard, with the resources to back up its good intentions, may be able to counter all of the forces working against low-income kids.


One reason there aren't more low-income students at America's top colleges is they often attend high schools that don't offer the rigorous college preparation available at affluent suburban public schools and elite private ones. But West Point is taking the lead in addressing this problem.

The U.S. Military Academy offers promising high-school students who are underprepared a full year at its "prep school" in Fort Monmouth, N.J. Students who successfully complete this program then become cadets at West Point, where they take the same four-year course load as other cadets. Best of all, the prep school -- like West Point itself -- costs nothing to attend.


  The prep school works wonders in helping low-income students succeed. Take Captain Jesus Terrones, who currently works in the public affairs office at West Point. Terrones is a first-generation Mexican-American, who was primarily raised by his father, a migrant farmworker. "In a great year, my dad made $11,000," he says. While Terrones graduated No. 6 in his class from an inner-city high school in Houston, "I wasn't being prepared to go to the Ivy League," he says. "People were getting killed in my school, and I was mugged."

West Point felt Terrones had a lot of promise. The young man was one of the captains of the soccer team and had already shown an aptitude for the military by becoming a leader in his school's junior ROTC program. "I was strong in leadership and fitness," he says, "but not as strong academically." The reason: "My school just didn't have the resources that many schools have," he says. "We had no prep for the SAT," for instance.

So when Terrones applied to West Point with the encouragement of Army recruiters, the academy accepted him with the provision that he first complete a year at the prep school, known as the U.S. Military Academy Prep School. Like other students, he entered a rigorous academic program focused on English and math, as well as taking part in sports and military training. The result: When he entered West Point the following year, "I felt far more prepared and comfortable," Terrones says. He graduated in 1999 right in the middle of his class.


  Terrones has since worked as an admissions outreach officer for the academy. His assignment: to reach out to minority students, including Hispanics, African Americans, and Native Americans. "I went to some really rough high schools, looking for diamonds in the rough," he says. "When we saw metal detectors and cops driving around the school, that's when we knew we were in the right neighborhood."

Terrones would tell interested students that if they were accepted, West Point would give them the academic support they'd need to succeed. That's a promise that no civilian elite college can make with equal conviction. At Amherst, for example, students who seem likely to struggle are invited to a three-week summer program -- a far cry from the full year offered by West Point.

Last summer, some 230 students entered West Point's prep school, which was formally established right after World War II. All of those who successfully complete the program are eligible to come to West Point. The percentage who do varies every year, but is always well over half the class.

To be sure, many of the cadets at West Point still come from affluent families. But thanks to the prep school and the fact that West Point is free, it's doing far better at attracting low-income students than some of its elite rivals. Currently, 26.5% of the some 4,000 cadets come from families earning less than $60,000 a year. That's a lot better than Harvard, where just 16% of the students come from families earning that little. And as Captain Terrones can attest, West Point is doing a lot more to insure that its low-income students will be able to compete on a level playing field.


Prestigious women's colleges have been at the forefront in attracting low-income students. Wellesley, Mount Holyoke, and Smith give at least 15% of their highly coveted spots to students poor enough to qualify for a federal Pell Grant. This was in part a response to the challenges all-female schools faced when once all-male colleges such as Amherst, Williams, and Yale went coed in the '70s. "It was clear we had to cast a wider net or we wouldn't survive," says Diana Chapman Walsh, president of Wellesley.

None of these schools has been more aggressive than Smith College, the largest of the elite women's colleges, where roughly a quarter of the students get Pell Grants, and nearly two-thirds receive need-based financial aid. That doesn't exactly jibe with Smith's traditional image as a school that helped prepare young women for society by serving dinner on white linen tablecloths, and which also claims former First Ladies Barbara Bush and Nancy Reagan among its alumnae.


  But that outdated image conceals a dedication to helping poor women get a top-notch education. "Our admissions office has been targeting inner-city schools for years," says Audrey Yale Smith, the college's dean of enrollment. That effort got a huge boost in the latter half of the '90s, when Ruth J. Simmons was president of Smith. "Simmons was the African-American daughter of sharecroppers, and she made a very compelling case about our commitment to access," says Dean Smith. Simmons is now president of Brown University.

A second factor that sets Smith College apart is its program that helps non-traditional women students -- who must be at least 24 years old -- complete college. Currently, Smith has about 210 of these Ada Comstock Scholars, some 8% of its 2,800 students. Unlike traditional students, who come directly from high school, these women are often already living on their own and are far more likely to be low income.


  To help attract such students, the school has somewhat altered its admissions criteria. Dean Smith and her colleagues are well aware that SAT scores are highly correlated with income. As a result, "We have de-emphasized SAT scores, and put more weight on teacher recommendations, high-school performance, and other measures," she says.

Smith points out that students with lower SAT scores often end up thriving at the school, where they get a lot of support, which ranges from an individual adviser and help with writing and math to a wardrobe of business suits they can draw from to go on job interviews before graduation.

But trailblazing has a price. "We take a big hit on [average] SAT scores," the dean concedes. "Our SAT scores are about 100 points below those of our peers in the U.S. News & World Report college rankings." And that has hurt Smith in the U.S. News rankings, where it now places 19th among liberal arts colleges. By comparison, Wellesley, where students' SAT scores average 100 points higher, is No. 4. As a result, getting into Smith isn't as competitive as getting into Harvard or Amherst. But Smith still gets plenty of applicants -- 3,400 applied for the 639 slots in last fall's entering class.


  In recent years, Smith College's financial-aid budget grew faster than other parts of the budget, says Dean Smith, swelling to over $40 million, or well over a quarter of the college's operating budget. As a result, the college was forced to cut back its famed dining program. Previously, Smith served students dinner in formal settings -- complete with linen tablecloths -- in the 26 houses where they live on campus. Now Smith has scaled that back to just 16 dining halls, while offering students more flexibility in when and what they can eat.

Dean Smith admits the change caused controversy. It also generated "a huge response from alumnae," many of whom have fond memories of the intimate dinners they enjoyed at the college. But she defends the change as necessary. "At one time, we were preparing women to enter society," says Dean Smith. "But now, we're preparing them to enter leadership positions." That should be food for thought for other schools looking to help low-income students.

Symond is Boston bureau chief for BusinessWeek

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