When Harvard revealed last month that it would significantly expand its financial aid next year, administrators at Yale and several other Ivies did not just notice what Harvard announced. They noticed when Harvard announced it.

Harvard’s new policy — which cut the parental contribution entirely for all families with incomes less than $60,000, and in part for families earning up to $80,000 — was unveiled March 30. High school seniors were scheduled to receive their admissions decisions from schools across the country two days later, on April 1.

To its competitors — Yale among them — the timing of Harvard’s decision appeared to be no accident, Yale Director of Financial Aid Caesar Storlazzi said last week. Instead, it was an aggressive move in an escalating competition among America’s top universities to attract the brightest low-income students. In the past two years, Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Brown and the University of Pennsylvania have all rolled out ambitious new financial aid plans. Along with those plans, those top schools and several others have pledged their commitment to enrolling a percentage of low-income students that better reflects American society.

But with Yale and other universities all professing a desire to increase a proportion of low-income students that is currently far less than that of the population at large, admissions officers are trying to discover whether they are fighting over the same small group of students. As they look to find a more economically diverse student body, they are facing two questions — whether there is a larger pool of qualified low-income students out there, and if so, how schools can find it.

A large enough pool?

Yale does not release any comprehensive information about the income of its students, but through financial aid statistics released by the University, it is possible to construct a rough estimate of how many lower-income students Yale enrolls.

In total, about 42 percent of students received some financial aid last year, implying that nearly three in five Yalies come from households that can afford to pay $40,000 in yearly tuition without assistance from the University. Data from Yale’s financial aid office also reveal that 541 undergraduates — 10.2 percent of Yale College — come from families that do not have to pay any parental contribution because they earn less than $45,000 a year. By comparison, 40 percent of U.S. families earned less than $43,400 in 2004.

Among top private universities, Yale is not unique in its income distribution. Statistics obtained from the Department of Education show that among Ivy League schools, Yale’s percentage of students with reported incomes below $42,000 was slightly lower in the 2004-’05 year than most other Ivies, with the exception of Princeton. Across the board, though, no school in the Ivy League enrolled more than 11.3 percent of students from this bracket, which approximates the bottom two-fifths of the income distribution.

This underrepresentation is explained by far more than the college admissions process — at every step of their education, lower-income students are likely to be at a disadvantage, educational experts note. From kindergarten on, they are less likely to attend good schools. Their parents are less likely to have a college education that might help them chart a path to the Ivy League. They do not have access to the SAT coaching, the summer programs or the advising services that have all become staples of the college search for wealthy families.

“The reason that we won’t see a huge shift in the number of low-income students who are attending Harvard and Yale is that the academic expectations are so high that while there are some students who would qualify, the numbers are not huge,” said Robert Shireman, the executive director of the Institute for College Access and Success.

But while low-income students are certainly underrepresented among the pool of students who — at least on the basis of their high school record — appear qualified for a school like Yale, several researchers have found that there still appears to be a pool of talented low-income students that are not applying to the Ivy League.

A paper written last year by two economists at Williams College, Gordon Winston and Catharine Hill GRD ’85, found that 10.7 percent of potential college applicants who received the equivalent of a 1520 SAT score or higher out of 1600 were in the bottom 40 percent of the income distribution. Among students who received the equivalent of a 1300 or higher, the proportion increased to 16 percent. In Yale’s Class of 2009, the median math SAT score was 740 and the median verbal score was 750.

“Our data suggests that there are students out there that could already make it,” said Hill, who will become president of Vassar College this summer.

The need-blind question

In 1966, Yale took what was then considered a revolutionary step in college admissions. It decided to become “need-blind” — to admit students without regards to how much they would be able to pay for their education. Low-income students, who were previously at a disadvantage if the University was concerned it would not be able to fund their financial aid packages, were to be considered on the same terms as everyone else.

In the class of 1970, the first admitted under Yale’s new policy, about 42 percent of students were on scholarship, according to research by sociologist Jerome Karabel of the University of California, Berkeley. Since then, the percentage of undergraduates on financial aid has remained virtually constant every year.

As recently as the early 1990s, Yale considered scrapping its need-blind policy in the midst of a financial crisis. Today, whether Yale will enroll poorer students regardless of how much aid they will receive is no longer an issue. But whether top schools should still be strictly “need-blind,” or whether they should now give formal preference to students who come from lower-income families, is an emerging question across higher education.

Last year, a study of America’s top colleges conducted by former Princeton President William Bowen along with Martin Kurzweil and Eugene Tobin found that at a given SAT level, students at the bottom of the socioeconomic scale appeared to be given no preference in the admissions process. Noting the preferences they identified for athletes, legacies and racial minorities, they argued that low-income students may deserve a “thumb on the scale” in the admissions process.

“I think what would have to change is not so much the standard, but that you have to be much more conscious when you are seated around the admissions table that someone is advocating” for a student from a low-income background, said Tobin, who served as president of Hamilton College in New York for a decade.

Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeffrey Brenzel said in an e-mail that the University already strives “to give positive consideration to students from backgrounds that are economically disadvantaged.”

“We do not have direct access to information about family income,” Brenzel said, “but we do take into account parental education level and occupation.”

Michele Hernandez, a college admissions consultant who has served as a Dartmouth College admissions officer, said universities often have the tools to give a boost to students who have overcome obstacles on their way to college.

“Sometimes, the admissions office can tell,” Hernandez said. “You can tell if they are applying for aid, or by where they go to school.”

But Hernandez said that while admissions officers might look favorably on lower-income students in some cases, those same students sometimes lack the insider knowledge that would help them gain admission. One student Hernandez advised for free had almost no extracurricular activities on her resume because she had to take care of her siblings. But the student’s first instinct was to make no mention of that exceptional case in her application — a mistake that Hernandez said would have hurt her chances of getting into a top school.

In the short term, however, schools are placing their emphasis on recruiting. The high-profile announcements of the new financial aid initiatives have been a major step in signaling that low-income students can afford a school like Yale, administrators say. Harvard and Yale also announced that their new aid policies would be combined with efforts to better identify prospective students who might be eligible.

Caroline Hoxby, a Harvard economist, said her research suggests that recruiting alone may have a significant effect on low-income enrollments. In a paper she co-wrote last year, she found that a College Board search file that identified potential Harvard applicants on the basis of their test scores had a higher proportion of low-income students than the pool of high-schoolers who actually applied.

“I’m extremely optimistic about how well we can improve things without needing to change admissions standards at all,” Hoxby said. “There are a lot of people out there, and we have to get better at identifying them.”

Brenzel said that while Yale currently uses the College Board search file — which identifies students by their test scores — to send promotional materials, he plans to formulate a new recruiting plan for low-income students in the next year that will build on the Student Ambassadors Program.

But the process of identifying those students can be challenging, Williams’ Catharine Hill and others note. Many of the untapped applicants attend rural schools, a visit to which might be prohibitively expensive for Yale. With more and more recruiting occurring online, students with less access to the Internet will face another barrier.

In the short term, the small number of universities with budgets large enough to afford generous aid packages will likely continue to increase their offerings, both to compete with each other and capture more low-income students. Last week, Storlazzi, Yale’s financial aid director, said he was preparing cost estimates for proposals that would improve the University’s aid packages by either cutting required student self-help or instituting a Harvard-like cut in the parental contribution.

“In terms of continuing the trend towards increased aid, having the schools compete with each other is something that is really important,” said Phoebe Rounds ’07, who has advocated for an expanded aid program at Yale. “I see this year as a really important window in seeing Yale faced with that choice: Do we match them, or do more than they’ve done?”

Brenzel said Yale’s concern is not matching Harvard, but making sure that the students it wants to come to New Haven actually matriculate. But if Yale succeeds in increasing its proportion of low-income students, it may also face another complicated decision: figuring out where those spots will come from.

Yale President Richard Levin said with the exception of recruited athletes, all students are considered without targets in mind, so the consequence of recruiting more low-income students “is what it is.” Yet Eugene Tobin, the former Hamilton College president, said Yale and its counterparts may have to rethink whom to privilege, and how much, in the admissions process.

“I think [Yale] will have to make some very tough choices, as will all selective schools, about what they value,” Tobin said. “I think it is a matter of consciously asking those questions — how much do you value athletics, and how much do you value the children of alumni, and how do you weigh that against the intrinsic value of educating highly qualified students?”