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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

Aiding Financial Aid

July-August 2004

Two recent gifts and a change in graduate-student support, respectively, bolster Harvard's efforts to encourage public service; help students from lower-income families who pursue higher education at the College; and ease the completion of doctoral studies. Meanwhile, the University's program of enhanced aid for lower-income families, launched in February (see "Class-conscious Financial Aid," May-June, page 62), has sparked debate nationwide.

Real-estate developer (Boston Properties) and media investor (U.S. News & World Report, New York Daily News) Mortimer B. Zuckerman, LL.M. '62, has given $10 million to create the Zuckerman Fellows program. It will enable 25 students a year who are seeking or have earned a business, law, or medical degree (at Harvard or elsewhere in the United States) to study for an additional degree at the Graduate School of Education, the Kennedy School of Government, or the School of Public Health. The fellows will also meet with faculty members and outside leaders and travel to observe public-policy problems and solutions.

"If they are inspired by the program," Zuckerman said in a statement, "at some point they will feel the pull to serve their own communities." President Lawrence H. Summers, who has highlighted public-service and academic careers (see "A 'Down Payment' on Financial Aid," March-April 2003, page 56), said that by focusing on students who have prepared in the "major well-paying professions," the new fellowships could help "draw the most talented people into public service" now or later in their careers. (The gift is timely: the Kennedy School, which has struggled to fund its loan-repayment assistance program for graduates who take low-paid jobs in the public sector, has contemplated limiting participation or capping the support at three years.)

The Starr Foundation separately gave $5 million, 90 percent of which will create a scholarship fund for undergraduates from families of low and moderate incomes. The University has eliminated the parental contribution toward College costs for families with incomes below $40,000; the parental share for those with incomes of $40,000 to $60,000 has been reduced by an average of more than 40 percent, to about $1,600. (Students remain responsible for work, loan, and scholarship contributions totaling $5,500 per academic year and summer.) The $500,000 remaining of the Starr grant will underwrite admissions-office travel and mailing outreach to prospective lower-income applicants, and hiring 10 undergraduates to boost that effort with personal contact.

In April, Princeton president emeritus William G. Bowen, now president of the Mellon Foundation, suggested that elite schools do a good job of finding distinguished students from less-well-off families, encouraging them to apply, admitting them, and offering enough aid so they can enroll — the real problem is the disadvantages such students face in preparing for college. To make elite institutions into "engines of opportunity," he recommended "putting a 'thumb' on the admissions scale (maybe even a thumb-and-a-half)," a sort of "economic affirmative action" equivalent to the current "legacy boost." That, he said, is "likely to be more effective in altering the socioeconomic composition of classes than improving financial-aid offers to those now being admitted."

In an interview, President Summers advocated a "multifaceted approach" to overcome socioeconomic disadvantage. Harvard's aid program, he said, sent a clear signal to applicants' families. Further recruiting would reach "many students who don't know Harvard is an option." In addition, he said, the admissions staff would be "very conscious of the need to look at every student in the context of the background they've had." And he cited work at Harvard's education and business schools on improving public education, the "pipeline" to college.

Finally, at the faculty meeting on May 18, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences dean Peter T. Ellison announced that dissertation-completion fellowships will be offered to all qualified doctoral students in the humanities and social sciences, beginning in the fall of 2005. The cost of this extension of increases in graduate-student aid begun six years ago was not disclosed; funds accrued by the central administration as a result of its recent belt-tightening will help defray this new expense for the next few years.

Recent experiments in offering such support on a limited basis made a huge difference, Ellison said, by encouraging admitted applicants to come to Harvard and helping them finish their degrees in timely fashion. Undergraduates have benefited, too, he said, because graduate students with such support no longer find themselves torn between their writing and teaching responsibilities.