March 31, 2004

Harvard to Allow Students To Attend Free of Charge

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Financial aid could be moving in a new direction due to Harvard’s recent decision not to ask parents earning less than $40,000 to contribute to their children’s tuition. The change will also include more financial support for families with incomes between $40,000 and $60,000, and an academic summer program that aims to help financially disadvantaged students prepare for college.

Changes will become effective for the 2004-2005 academic year.

Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers addressed the American Council on Education in Miami on Feb. 29, a day after the new initiative was announced.

“Too often, outstanding students from families of modest means do not believe that college is an option for them, much less an Ivy League university,” he said.

Overall, 16 percent of Harvard undergraduates are from families with incomes of less than $57,000, the bottom half of American household incomes. Seven percent are from the lowest quarter, earning $33,000 a year or less.

Harvard plans to initiate a more aggressive recruiting strategy for students whose family incomes fall under $40,000.

Although Harvard’s new policy may spurn other universities to try to modify their own aid policies, Harvard’s endowment, larger than any in the Ivy League, is an advantage many schools do not have.

At Cornell, 19 percent of undergraduates are from families with incomes of less than $57,000, making the school more economically diverse than Harvard, especially given its larger student body.

“Making Cornell affordable is one of the University’s primary goals, and our undergraduate financial aid policies are in place to support that goal,” Doris Davis, associate provost for admissions and enrollment, said.

“We are proud of the fact that our students come from a wide range of economic backgrounds; this diversity further enriches Cornell,” she added.

Any chance of a similar initiative is not likely in Cornell’s near future, according to Mona Lucas, associate provost of admissions and enrollment.

“We would need more money because we have more students who would qualify,” Lucas said.

According to Lucas, it is very likely that students from families earning less than $40,000 would have to contribute toward a Cornell education. However, she said the contribution could be small, depending on a variety of factors considered in each case for financial aid.

Lucas believes that Harvard’s initiative will give the university an edge when students choose which school to attend. “It is an attractive strategy,” Lucas said. “If someone is considering Harvard or Cornell, and the final deciding factor is financial aid, they will choose Harvard. We would definitely not be able to compete with that offer.”

Cornell also offers state funded tuition to many students in the contract colleges, which makes it a unique case among its competitors. Additionally, Lucas believes that in order for Harvard to make such an offer, the school will lose federal funding toward aid for students because it will not follow the federal need calculation formula under the initiative. Harvard may have the resources to compensate for any lost money, but such an option is not viable for most universities who would want to compete with similar aid packages.

Sarah Donahue ’75, director of financial aid at Harvard, said that the initiative has received excellent publicity, and that many families are now calling and asking for advice on how to qualify for admission and financial aid.

“It has gotten the message out,” she said.

She admitted that the initiative may result in lost federal funding. “If we were to determine that a student need was greater than federal funding provided, then we wouldn’t be able to award them federal funding,” she said. “We’re fortunate to have institutional funding to award students.”

Ronald Ehrenberg, the Irving M. Ives Professor of Industrial and Labor Relations and Economics and the director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute, said Harvard’s decision likely is a response to recent studies, such as one done on selective private institutions belonging to the Consortium for Financing Higher Education (COFHE), which includes the Ivy Leagues and other schools such as Northwestern, Stanford, and Washington University in St. Louis.

The results of the study showed that, on average, less than 10 percent of the students at these institutions were from the bottom two-fifths of a nationwide family income distribution. The overwhelming majority of students were from families in the top fifth of the income distribution, revealing a very disproportionate student body at top colleges and universities.

“It is reasonable to assume that Harvard was no better at enrolling students from low income families than the average institution in the group — probably they were doing ‘worse than average’ and this is what precipitated Larry Summers acting when he did,” Ehrenberg said. “Cornell has always been much better than most of our COFHE competitors in enrolling students from lower income families.”

Donahue admitted that the studies certainly had contributed to the realization that Harvard needed a more economically diverse student body but argued that studies like the COFHE showed that COFHE schools devote more money to diversity than other universities.

Ehrenberg believes Cornell’s commitment to diversity remains strong both because of its contract colleges and Ezra Cornell’s founding commitment to diversity: “I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.”

“For as long as I can remember we have always had special programs that eliminate the loan component of financial aid packages for student from lower income families,” Ehrenberg said. “Although I doubt that our resources would permit us to match what Harvard has done, we can point with great pride to the fact that we are ‘above average’ as compared to the other COFHE institutions in enrolling students from the lower two-fifths of the family income distribution. We really believe here that the institution should serve as a vehicle for social mobility and that’s one of the reasons that I am so attached to the university.”

Archived article by Stephanie Baritz
Sun Senior Writer