Harvard College’s Pell-Grant Numbers Are Higher Than Study Reports

To the Editor:

We read with interest “Low-Income Students Pay High Net Prices at Many Colleges, Study Finds” (The Chronicle, May 8) which describes “Undermining Pell: How Colleges Compete for Wealthy Students and Leave the Low-Income Behind,” the recently released study by Stephen Burd of the New America Foundation. We write to address the figures cited in the report for the percentage of Pell Grant recipients at Harvard College.

Mr. Burd’s study incorrectly indicated that only 11 percent of Harvard undergraduates received Pell Grants in 2011. In fact, the correct figure for Harvard College for that year was 16.9 percent, and for 2012 year, this percentage continued to increase to 17.2 percent. This represents an 81-percent increase in the number of Pell Grant recipients since 2004, when we launched a targeted initiative to encourage talented low-income students to apply to, and to attend, Harvard College. These students graduate at the same 97-percent rate as their classmates from higher income families; have no expected family financial contribution; and are able to graduate debt-free while working a modest number of hours during the year. As a result of this initiative, approximately 20 percent of families with students at Harvard College pay nothing towards the cost of tuition, room, board, or other fees. More than 60 percent of families with students at the college receive need-based financial aid, paying on average a total of only $12,000.

What is the reason for this discrepancy? The study appears to make the common but unfortunate error of conflating the percentage of undergraduates receiving Pell Grants at Harvard College, the institution that comes to mind when most people think of undergraduates attending Harvard, with the thousands of non-traditional students who took one or more classes at the Harvard Extension School in 2011.

While Harvard Extension School plays a very important role for learners in the Boston area and beyond, its mission and student body are quite different from those of Harvard College. Unlike the 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 members with advanced degrees taking individual courses for their personal edification or for professional development. Including these occasional students, most of whom are ineligible for Pell Grants, in calculating the percentage of undergraduate recipients inadvertently serves to misrepresent our success in opening Harvard College to students from less wealthy backgrounds.

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
Sarah C. Donahue
Director of Financial Aid
Harvard College
Harvard University
Cambridge, Mass.

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