Harvard and the American Dream

President Obama’s recent address at the University of Michigan rightly suggested that if the American Dream is to be open to all, not just some, college must be made more affordable to average Americans. But a new analysis of America’s oldest and richest university suggests that adequate financial aid is necessary, but not sufficient, to ensuring that students of all economic backgrounds have access at selective colleges.

Eight years ago, Harvard’s president Lawrence Summers suggested that “an important purpose of institutions like Harvard is to give everybody a shot at the American Dream.” Strongly backed by William Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions at Harvard, the university crafted an innovative and far-reaching financial-aid program to make Harvard virtually free for students from families making less than $40,000 (and today, for families making less than $60,000) in annual income. In important ways, the system worked, as the percentage of students eligible for Pell Grants rose substantially from 9.6 percent in 2004 to 15 percent in 2011.

But looking at the class as a whole (not just the proportion of students who receive Pell grants), a new analysis of data by Justin Lanning in the Harvard Crimson, found that in the 2010-11 academic year, almost half (45.6 percent) of Harvard undergraduates came from families with incomes above $200,000 a year, a level of affluence that only 3.8 percent of American households enjoy. Only about 4 percent of Harvard undergraduates came from the bottom quintile of U.S. incomes, he notes, and 82.2 percent came from the richest two-fifths of the population. (Admissions dean Fitzsimmons did not respond to a request for comment on these data.)

Critics will note that Lanning examines the income of all Americans, not those with children of college-going age (which is somewhat higher), but the overall issue he raises is important. Harvard’s record tells us something about the insufficiency of addressing financial-aid concerns alone in giving students from all backgrounds a shot at attending selective colleges. Even the most generous financial-aid program is meaningless for students who aren’t admitted in the first place. Selective universities seeking diversity should more aggressively count obstacles overcome as an element of merit in admissions decisions. And they should end preferences for the children of alumni, which today increase the odds of admission by 45 percentage points for students at institutions like Harvard.

Lanning’s overall conclusion is hard to argue with: “Undoubtedly, Harvard is more socioeconomically diverse than ever before, but, as with all things, better does not always equal good.”

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