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Rest of the World to Harvard: We Give Up

Only an institution as pompous and as arrogant as Harvard University would consider families making between $120k and $180k a year 'middle income'.

But such is Harvard.

Harvard has just dropped the equivalent of an atomic bomb on the higher education industry:

Harvard announces sweeping middle-income initiative: The new policy has three major components:

• The “Zero to 10 Percent Standard”: Harvard’s new financial aid policy dramatically reduces the amount families with incomes below $180,000 will be expected to pay. Families with incomes above $120,000 and below $180,000 and with assets typical for these income levels will be asked to pay 10 percent of their incomes. For those with incomes below $120,000, the family contribution percentage will decline steadily from 10 percent, reaching zero for those with incomes at $60,000 and below.

• No Loans: In calculating the financial aid packages offered to undergraduates, Harvard will not expect students to take out loans.

• Eliminate Home Equity from Consideration: Under the new policy, Harvard will no longer consider home equity in determining a family’s ability to pay for college.

It's not even worth it to fathom how Cornell could even begin to compete with such a policy, and in truth, only Princeton, and maybe Stanford and Yale among large research universities will be able to follow suit. Biddy Martin explained earlier this year why Cornell can't even afford to provide a no-loan financial aid package to students from families making under $45k a year. And there are countless articles telling us how Cornell educates a lot more low and middle-income families than places like Harvard.

But to speak about this news more generally, what it represents is an attempt by Harvard to declare itself as the prima donna of the Ivy League. It always gets what it wants, including the very top students from some of the most affluent families in the country. One really has to question the benefit of subsidizing a family making $180,000 a year to the tune of 80 grand ($20k a year at current tuition levels). What's the worse possible outcome in a world where an upper-middle class Harvard student doesn't have this type of support? They have to attend a flagship state school like UT-Austin, UVa, UNC-CH, or Berkeley or UCLA. All of which offer fantastic undergraduate experiences. The trade off doesn't seem to be that large, if you ask me.

This is not about the middle class. Only 14% of families in the country make over $125k a year. Of that, a third made over $200k. No. We're talking about the upper echelons of the American populace here. These are the sons and daughters of the American intelligentsia -- program officers of non-profit foundations, humanities professors, district attorneys and judges.

So in the end, it's really a matter of Harvard's arrogance. It's catapulting its brand and its reputation above all else. But rest assured, there are better uses for Harvard's money. Try cancer research. Or sustainable energy development. Or maybe even developing a hockey team that can actually advance in the NCAA playoffs. But I suspect that this financial aid initiative will help them do just that.

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on December 10, 2007 (#)

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