College admissions, like anything else that rides on the whims of 17-year-olds, tend to be erratic. A spicy rumor, a championship run by the football team, an appearance on “Felicity” and voila! — a deluge of applications appears and there’s a new hot university.

So it is easy to dismiss Harvard’s 15 percent spike in applications this year and Yale’s 1.2 percent drop as such natural fluctuation in an unpredictable field (“Yale sees decline in applicant numbers,” 1/31). But this is a rare case where cause and result are not hard to sort out.

Yale had seen robust application increases in the past few years. Last year saw an increase of 13.4 percent; the year before, 15 percent. (In the interest of keeping perspective: The number of applications Yale received even after a dip — 19,430 — is still mind-boggling.) Harvard, meanwhile, had seen its numbers plateau and then fall. Two years ago, applications rose 7 percent; last year, the university saw a 6 percent drop.

But what happened recently at Yale is quite a reversal in just a year. The logical question, then: Did something drastic happen in the past 12 months that could explain this?

Perhaps this: Last February, Harvard announced a sweeping financial-aid initiative that eliminated the parent-contribution component of tuition for all families earning under $40,000 a year and reduced costs for families that earn $40,000 to $60,000 a year. The whole thing added $2 million to the school’s scholarship budget.

This past week, Harvard Dean of Admissions William Fitzsimmons said the school’s jump in applicants was due “in large measure” to its new financial-aid policy. It is not difficult to imagine that a few folks at 38 Hillhouse Ave. have come to the same conclusion.

And for those who need numerical proof that Fitzsimmons’ comments are more than just self-serving, the Harvard Crimson reported that last fall, there was a 50 percent jump in the number of early applicants requesting fee waivers — a strong indicator of more applicants from the lower end of the economic spectrum.

So what to do? Announcing a similar new financial-aid policy that will woo thousands of new applicants seems logical.

Almost. See, there is a glaring problem with allowing any family that earns less then $40,000 a year to not have to pay the parent component of financial aid. There are more than a few families in America with substantial wealth but little in the way of yearly income. And it’s safe to say that families who are so wealthy that they don’t need to work are not the ideal target of a financial-aid initiative. Nevertheless, it is to these wealthy children that Harvard is devoting money that really should be going to other folks.

The right move for Yale, then, is to make a commitment to a stronger financial-aid program that has the virtue not just of attracting more applicants, but also divvies up aid as fairly as possible once those applicants turn into students. The first part is in some ways a matter of marketing; how the policy translates into aid for each student shows what the University is really about.

It also should be said that although this year’s admissions numbers will surely provide an impetus for change, one would hope that the bare fact that the financial-aid program is behind in some respects should be enough to change it. (Again, in the interest of keeping perspective: Yale’s $48.1 million financial-aid budget is better than those at probably 99 percent of universities in this country.)

So in the spirit of substance over style, here are three things — besides sorting uber-wealthy applicants out — that I think should accompany a Yale financial-aid initiative, were one to materialize:

–Lessening the 2004-2005 self-help burden level, currently at $4,200, is the one change that would make the biggest difference for the life of the University. It’s the most tangible way that low-income students are differentiated from the rest of the student body. And because of the time restrictions holding a job to meet the contribution entails, it’s also the most hurtful.

–Another change that would go a long way would be to re-implement the summer waiver program for financial-aid students for the Class of 2009, giving students one summer to pursue activities other than for-pay jobs. This is another area where wealth dictates experience in more harmful ways than it should. A great solution here, which is apparently being give some thought, would be to fund summer study-abroad programs for students receiving aid. To do this would make the Yale experience a lot more enriching for a lot of people.

–Lastly, a comparatively small solution, but one that would make a big a difference: The financial aid information session that has been dropped from the calendar of opening days ought to be re-instated. It should cover campus jobs, filling out tax forms, applying for loans and outside scholarships, using the International Education and Fellowship Programs, and navigating the work-study system at Yale. Sessions of a similar nature should be held throughout the year. There needs to be as strong a system of communication on this front as possible.

One more note: The admissions office is strongly considering a new recruitment program for low-income rural and urban high schools that are historically underrepresented at Yale. So there will soon be a push to find volunteers to carry Lux et Veritas to places all over the country that also feel far away from here. This means you don’t have to wait for a decision from on-high about financial aid if you really want to help Yale attract a wider range of people.

In the end, here’s how this all comes together: The ultimate goal of financial aid reform is not just better admissions numbers, or a student commitment to a more diverse student body, or even a policy change by the Yale administration. It’s creating a University where life is guided as much as possible by everything besides your wealth. And all three of these factors — admissions numbers, student attitude and official policy — need to change for that University to become a reality.

Steven Syverud is a junior in Branford College. He is a former staff reporter for the News.