Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

Class-conscious Financial Aid

May-June 2004

Harvard has enhanced its undergraduate financial-aid program in an effort to make the College more attractive to lower-income students. Beginning this fall, the parental contribution toward tuition, room, and board will be eliminated for entering and continuing students from families whose income is less than $40,000 per year. That contribution has averaged $2,300 in the past year. Families with incomes from $40,000 to $60,000 will have their expected contribution reduced $1,250 on average (the University did not quantify their current financial obligation). Students will remain responsible for contributing to their expenses to the tune of $3,500 next year (met through outside scholarships, term employment, or loans), plus an average of $2,000 from summer earnings ($1,850 for freshmen).

The aid enhancements, announced in late February by President Lawrence H. Summers, are expected to assist more than 1,000 families in the next academic year, when the program will boost Harvard's undergraduate scholarship funding by $2 million, to nearly $80 million. (The bill for tuition, room, board, and fees in 2004-2005 will increase by $1,952, to $39,880—5.15 percent more than the $37,928 cost of attending the College during the current academic year.)

At a time of considerable public interest in admissions issues ranging from affirmative action (see "Affirmative Amicus," May-June 2003, and "Citing Harvard," September-October 2003, for discussion of the University of Michigan cases decided by the Supreme Court last year) to "legacy" preferences for the children of alumni, Summers defined a new challenge. Speaking before the American Council of Education, in Miami, he said "the most serious domestic problem in the United States today is the widening gap between the children of the rich and the children of the poor, and education is the most powerful weapon we have to address that problem." (The full text is available at www.president.harvard.edu.)

Data released by the University show that measured by family income, parents' education and occupation, and other factors, 73.9 percent of students entering the College come from the highest socioeconomic quartile of society, where family incomes are above $81,000 (based on 1999 census data). In contrast, just 6.8 percent of entering students come from the first, or lowest, socioeconomic quartile (incomes below $33,000), and 9.2 percent from the second quartile. By this measure, Harvard actually does a better job of accommodating disadvantaged students than do "highly selective colleges" overall, where just 9 percent of entering students come from the bottom half of the socioeconomic distribution. In other words, Summers said, "Children whose families are in the lower half of the American income distribution are un- derrepresented by 80 percent" at selective institutions.

The boost in financial aid was shaped in part by interviews with students who said they already shouldered the expected parental contribution toward their Harvard education expenses, rather than burdening their families further.

Although the aid message is meant to be clear and simple, it is not expected to be sufficient to overcome the hurdles. Summers noted that "a student from the highest income quartile and lowest aptitude quartile is as likely to be enrolled in college as a student from the lowest income quartile and the highest aptitude quartile," reflecting differences in counseling and preparation, as well as financial resources. So Harvard will step up its recruiting targeted at schools and students in lower-income areas, and is "re-emphasizing" in its admissions process "the policy of taking note of applicants who have achieved a great deal despite limited resources at home or in their local schools." Funds will also be made available for prospective students to visit the campus as they decide whether to enroll, and to pay for books, winter clothing, and medical or other emergencies while at the College, as needed.

The goal, Summers concluded, is to "encourage talented students from families of low and moderate income to attend Harvard College." If the program has the intended effect, it will be a small part in a larger societal mission of increasing access to excellent higher education when the economic impact of doing so is greater than ever—particularly for students from the poorest families.