Harvard University Gets Shortchanged in Pell Grant Analysis

A recent analysis in the Chronicle of Higher Education ranked 75 private colleges and universities with large endowments over $500 million on their percentage of low-income students. Using federal Pell Grant data, the analysis placed Harvard University in 70th place among the 75 most highly endowed schools. According to the Chronicle’s analysis, 8.1 percent of Harvard undergraduates received federal Pell Grants in the 2006-07 academic year.

But this analysis was flawed — at least where Harvard is concerned. It did Harvard a severe injustice. In fact, according to JBHE calculations, during the 2006-07 academic year, 12.2 percent of Harvard undergraduates qualified for federal Pell Grants for low-income students. This would have placed Harvard in 29th place among the 75 colleges and universities in the Chronicle’s survey.

The reason for the discrepancy is that the Chronicle overstates the total number of undergraduates at Harvard. The Chronicle’s analysis says that there are 9,968 undergraduates at Harvard. But there are only 1,600 students in each entering class at Harvard and in 2007 there were fewer than 1,700 bachelor’s degrees awarded by the institution. Since Harvard has a very low dropout rate, it seemed to JBHE that it would be impossible for there to be nearly 10,000 undergraduate students at the university.

In fact there are not. The 9,968 figure includes approximately 3,300 students who are in non-degree extension programs at Harvard. According to the Harvard Web site, “The extension program is primarily for part-time students older than college age but seeking a liberal arts education. The extension program is outside Harvard’s traditional degree-granting programs.”

So the truth is that Harvard has been doing a far better job in enrolling low-income students than the Chronicle survey would lead the reader to believe. In fact, Harvard is one of the few leading universities to have shown an increase in low-income students over the past several years.

Alan J. Stone, vice president for government, community and public affairs at Harvard University, told JBHE that Harvard’s data for the current academic year — information that is not included in the latest Department of Education data — shows that there are 860 Pell Grant recipients at Harvard, making up 13 percent of the undergraduate student body.