In light of his recent resignation  as Harvard University’s president, some might forget that it was actually Lawrence H. Summers who, in 2004, ushered in a sweeping financial aid initiative aimed at increasing the representation of talented low-income students at the university. Summers is now on the way out, but new research indicates that the plan he pushed has helped dozens more of these students make their way to the elite institution.
The continuing effort is focused both on decreasing financial burdens for poorer families and on increasing outreach to students of such families. Parents with incomes of less than $40,000 are not required to contribute to the cost of attending Harvard. Before the plan took effect, similarly situated families would have had to pay about $2,300 a year. In addition, parents with incomes between $40,000 and $60,000 are expected to contribute, on average, about $1,250 less than before the new program was instituted. As part of the effort, the university’s admissions office also began visiting more schools in low-income areas, sent more letters to poor students, and provided more outreach from current Harvard students and graduates.
In a new paper  titled “Cost Should Be No Barrier: An Evaluation of the First Year of Harvard’s Financial Aid Initiative,” researchers affiliated with the National Bureau of Economic Research compared Harvard’s class of 2008, whose members applied before the initiative was announced, with the class of 2009, which went through admissions after the effort was in place. Christopher Avery, a professor of public policy at Harvard, and Caroline Hoxby, a professor of economics at Harvard and director of the bureau, oversaw the effort.
The researchers found that 6.6 percent (97 of 1,459) of the students in the class of 2008 were from families who made less than $40,000, while this number was 7.9 percent (117 of 1,478) for the students of the class of 2009. At the same time, 8.2 percent (119 of 1,459) of the students from the 2008 class came from families that made between $40,000 and $60,000. Such students made up 8.7 percent (128 of 1,478) of the class of 2009. Overall, there was an increase of 1.8 percent (29 students) in the two low-income categories.
Applicants for the class of 2009 were more likely to qualify for the initiative than those in the class of 2008, which the report’s authors say is evidence that the financial and outreach portions of the effort are working. Their research also indicates that the increase in applications for Harvard’s class of 2009 was disproportionately from families with low incomes. Based on analyses of class rank and SAT scores, the researchers report that Harvard “may have expanded its applicant pool without weakening the quality of its applicants.” Avery explained that without actually reading the applications, the researchers were not comfortable making a definitive claim on this subject.
“On the whole, it seems to us that the initiative affected the admissions process in exactly the right way,” according to the authors. “It drew students who were qualified but would otherwise have thought Harvard unaffordable….
“Although the new financial aid packages were fully rolled out in the first year of the initiative, we expect other parts of the initiative (recruiting, analysis of disadvantage in the admissions process, summer school) to increase in efficaciousness over time,” they said in the paper. “Thus, the first year effects, though significant in themselves, understate the likely long-run effects of the initiative.”
But is a 1.8 percent increase in students really that significant?
“Yes,” said Gordon C. Winston, director of the Williams Project on the Economics of Higher Education, upon reviewing the results presented in the paper. “Boy, I think it’s very impressive, and I’m an economist.”
Winston recently co-authored a report  that indicates elite institutions like Harvard should be able to increase by 30 percent the number of low income students they admit without lowering the quality of their student bodies.
While an increase of 29 students may seem like a small number in the short term, Winston predicted that the results will snowball over time. He said that low-income students who are successful at Harvard will be another outreach arm that will be able to express to fellow high ability low-income students from their home communities that succeeding at an elite institution is possible.
“The big question nationwide is why we aren’t seeing more high ability low-income students applying,” he said. “These are bright kids we’re talking about, not slobs.
“This research of the Harvard initiative is like a bumper sticker that shows it can be done,” he continued. “And I believe that other institutions are going to be able to mirror the effect."