Harvard for Free?

January 17th, 2016 / By

I rarely vote my ballot for the Harvard Board of Overseers but I may have to do so this year. A group of candidates is running on a two-plank platform: (1) make tuition free for all undergraduates, and (2) disclose information about admissions decisions that would reveal (among other things) the role of race and legacy status in admissions.

Whoa, those are two goals rarely paired. The candidates are similarly diverse. One member of the slate is Ralph Nader, who is known for his far-left views. The other four publicly oppose affirmative action. What should we make of this?

Free Tuition

The candidates observe that, even though Harvard provides generous financial aid, its sticker price may scare off low-income students. If every high school counselor in the country knew that their best students had a chance to attend Harvard College for free, would more low-income students apply? Maybe. The scarcity of low-income students at elite colleges does seem to stem from a mix of cost and cultural barriers. Free tuition might make Harvard more visible–and seemingly accessible–to talented low-income students.

It’s striking, of course, that these candidates are trying to provide the benefit that flagship state universities once offered. Low-income students once attended their state university for free or minimal tuition. Those universities were also well known within their states, seeming both culturally and economically accessible to residents.

It’s very unlikely, however, that state universities will fully resume that role. We live in an era in which the majority of citizens staunchly oppose both tax hikes and big government. Public universities are trying valiantly to freeze or reduce tuition, but their efforts are capped by what taxpayers are willing to pay.

At the same time, we live in an era of tremendous–but concentrated–private wealth. Some of that wealth appears in university endowments and annual donations. Could elite private universities replace public institutions as the democratizing force in higher education? Fifty years from now, will sociologists trace the shift from public support of low-income students to private support? It’s an interesting possibility.

I hasten to note that Harvard officials have already dismissed the idea of eliminating undergraduate tuition. The endowment, they say, is splintered into funds designated for specific uses. Some money is just for faculty research, while some is for sherry at faculty-student dinners. (My House Master claimed the latter when I was an undergraduate. In any event, we drank lots of sherry at those dinners.)

But that’s what any careful administrator would say at this point. The Harvard endowment is pretty big, and so is annual giving. I doubt that all of the money is earmarked for sherry. There are things you don’t want to do, and things you could do if forced to do so. I suspect free tuition for undergraduates falls in the latter category.

Transparency in Admissions

I support affirmative action in higher education admissions, but I also support transparency. I absolutely agree that Harvard should be more transparent in its admissions. What role does legacy status play? How about sports? Or musical talent? How does Harvard consider an applicant’s race and ethnicity? Is gender relevant? (It was when I was admitted to the last vestiges of “Radcliffe College.” Harvard designated many fewer seats for women than men in those days.)

As noted above, we live in an age in which concentrations of private wealth greatly influence social outcomes. Various types of social safety nets–including upward mobility through higher education–appear to be shifting away from government and toward private foundations. As that happens, it’s critical to keep these private institutions as transparent and accountable as possible.

There’s no point in hiding affirmative action. If it’s a worthwhile goal, then we should be willing to show how it operates. And we should also know who affirmative action hurts. Is it true, as this slate of candidates suggests, that Harvard’s actions discriminate against Asian-Americans? As both an alum and a citizen, I want to know.

The Vote

Will I vote for these candidates, assuming they make the ballot? I don’t know. I’m as undecided as reporter Sarah Koenig in the first season of Serial. There are things I don’t like about each of the candidates, including particularly Ralph Nader. On the other hand, there probably are things I would dislike about all of the candidates on the ballots I throw away each year.

I do know that these ideas are worth discussing. Even if they turn out to be impractical (maybe the endowment really can’t replace all of that tuition, maybe revealing admissions practices would compromise the identity of applicants), these are important issues related to social mobility and the accessibility of higher education.


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