June 24, 2024

Economix: Economic Diversity at Harvard (Cont.)

Michael Fein/Bloomberg News

Harvard officials have responded to The Chronicle of Higher Education’s recent chart on economic diversity at top colleges — which I wrote about last week — and have made some good points. The brief version: Harvard’s undergraduate student body is more economically diverse than The Chronicle’s numbers suggested. It’s still not very diverse, but it has become more diverse in the last few years.

The issue revolves around something called the Harvard Extension School. About 14,000 students were enrolled in the Extension School last year. Its students generally do not attend classes full time. Many are trying to get a degree of some kind, undergraduate or graduate. But many are not.

To be eligible for a Pell Grant — the main federal financial aid program — a student must be pursuing an undergraduate degree. Fewer than 1,000 of the 14,000 Extension School students were pursuing such a degree last year, says Jeff Neal, a Harvard spokesman. Yet all 14,000 of the Extension School students were counted as Harvard students in the Education Department data that The Chronicle used in its analysis. With these students included, fewer than 7 percent of Harvard students received Pell grants in 2008 (the most recent data available from the Education Department).

If you look at only full-time students enrolled in the traditional Harvard College, 12.8 percent received Pell Grants in 2008, Mr. Neal said. This year, the number is up to 15 percent. Back in 2004, it was 9.6 percent.

Not only are those numbers higher than the ones in The Chronicle’s analysis, but they’re obviously increasing over time. Harvard deserves credit for that. Has it made enough progress? I’d say no.

Pell Grants go roughly to the bottom half of the income distribution. Work by William Bowen, Anthony Carnevale, Richard Kahlenberg and others suggests that elite colleges still overlook or exclude talented low-income students. As long as that remains the case, those colleges won’t be as meritocratic as they claim.

Below, I have pasted two notes. The first is an e-mail that Jeffrey Selingo, the editor of The Chronicle, sent me after I’d asked him about Harvard’s reply. After that is the text of the letter that two Harvard administrators sent to The Chronicle last week.


Jeffrey Selingo’s e-mail:

Three times in the last five years, The Chronicle has performed an analysis of how well the nation’s wealthiest colleges are serving low-income students by looking at the share of undergraduates on Pell Grants. Each time, we have acknowledged that such a measure is an imperfect indicator of economic diversity for a variety of reasons, but in the absence of better national data reported to the U.S. Education Department, it’s the best one available.

Harvard is not alone among colleges in the sample that maintain that some portion of their undergraduate student body should be excluded (we noted in our article that Harvard’s enrollment figure included its extension school). But to exclude any group would require us to collect data from individual institutions that would need to be manipulated in some way by the institution to exclude those groups of students. Allowing the institutions to provide the data, I believe, could compromise our analysis because we wouldn’t be using national baseline data collected and policed by the Education Department.

While Harvard enrolls many of its nontraditional students in the extension school, many other institutions in the sample include such students in their overall enrollment number. So if we were to make an exception for Harvard, we would treat it differently than other institutions. Doing so would also require us to ask each institution to exclude the extension-type students who receive Pell Grants.


Letter from Harvard officials:

In recent years, Harvard College has played a leadership role among colleges and universities to attract a diverse array of students, including those eligible for Pell Grants. For instance, in fiscal year 2008, 12.8 percent of Harvard College students benefited from Pell Grant funds. Excluding international students, who are not eligible however modest their economic circumstances, the percentage increases to 14.02. And I’m pleased to report that the portion of Harvard students accessing these funds has continued to grow over the last two years, to 15 and 16.8 percent respectively in 2010.

Harvard College also supports a very generous, need-based, no loan financial aid program that will total approximately $160 million in the coming year. In fact, roughly 70 percent of Harvard College students receive some sort of financial aid and over 60 percent receive scholarship aid directly from Harvard. The average scholarship aid award is $40,000. Families with students on scholarship contribute an average of $11,500 annually toward the cost of a Harvard College education.

The College has a policy of “zero contribution” from families with normal assets making $60,000 or less annually. Families with incomes up to $180,000 with assets typical for these income levels are asked to contribute no more than 10 percent of their incomes. Since 2007, Harvard’s investment in financial aid has climbed by more than 60 percent, significantly outpacing increases in tuition.

Given these facts, I was disappointed that the Chronicle of Higher Education chose to include a misleading statistic about the number of undergraduates at Harvard benefiting from Pell Grants in the chart that accompanied the article, “Elite Colleges Fail to Gain More Students on Pell Grants”. The chart indicates that in 2008-2009, only 6.5 percent of Harvard undergraduates received Pell Grants. But this is only true if you count both students attending Harvard College, the institution that comes to mind when most people think of undergraduates attending Harvard, and also the thousands of non-traditional students who took even one undergraduate class at the Harvard Extension School that year.

The Harvard Extension School is a wonderful institution, which plays an important role in enabling our neighbors in Cambridge and Boston to access the scholarship, teaching and learning occurring on our campus. But its mission and student body are quite different from those of Harvard College. It primarily serves non-traditional students, many of whom are older than the typical undergraduate cohort, most of whom work during the day and attend some number of classes at night and the majority of whom are not participating in a degree program. In fact, many Extension School students are Harvard staff with advanced degrees taking individual courses for their personal edification or for professional development. These and other students taking an occasional course at the Extension School aren’t eligible for and are not seeking Pell Grants. This can hardly be the sample that the Chronicle was purporting to represent.

Sadly, however, the Chronicle’s decision to combine the total student numbers from the Extension School and Harvard College roughly doubles the total number of students being used in the denominator of their calculation, thereby cutting the percentage of students receiving Pell Grants roughly in half, even though, as I’ve noted, most Extension School students clearly fall into a different category of student than those attending the College.

We will continue our ongoing work to make a Harvard College education possible for students from all backgrounds, regardless of financial means.

William R. Fitzsimmons,
Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, Harvard College
Sarah C. Donahue,
Director of Financial Aid, Harvard College

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=9405dd0636a2c78f9002173df85bd7c6

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