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The Big Catch of Rising Tuition

By Aaron J. Miller, Crimson Staff Writer

“In this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes” – Benjamin Franklin

In Cambridge, it’s come to feel like we can add one more certainty to the list: Harvard’s tuition going up year after year.

Last April, Harvard announced that it would raise the yearly cost of attending the College to $60,659—a 3.5 percent jump from the year before. 2014 saw similar tuition growth (3.9 percent), as did 2013 (3.5 percent), 2012 (3.5 percent), and 2011 (3.8 percent). This trend more or less holds true all the way back to when tuition was just $150 in 1870, with each recent increase well outpacing inflation.

Though never specifying their reasons, the University has sought to justify each tuition increase by a doubling down on financial aid and a guarantee that no student will be unable to attend Harvard for financial reasons. The headline every year in the University-published Harvard Gazette reads something like: “Harvard announces tuition increase, rise in aid.”

And the University presents statistics to boot: Over 70 percent of families receive some amount of aid; the average family on aid pays $12,000 annually; a family making less than $65,000 doesn’t pay a dime. By coupling tuition and financial aid growth, the University has avoided any backlash to rising costs.

However, there are underlying problems with raising tuition for which financial aid cannot compensate.

Each year, Harvard Admissions sends officers across the country, hires student ambassadors, and floods high school students’ emails and mailboxes to get the word out about Harvard’s generous financial aid. The goal: to attract the most socioeconomically diverse class possible—something that Harvard deems central to its mission.

But at the same time, significant confusion hangs over the college admissions and financial aid processes.

When it comes to financial aid, each university has its own net price calculator, its own forms, and its own vague literature. On top, high school students and their families juggle essays, standardized tests, interviews, and visits—not to mention their regular coursework and extracurriculars.

Study after study has thus evidenced the amount of misinformation surrounding the process, which leads families to overestimate the cost of attending college. One University of Southern California and Sallie Mae Fund survey found that less than 20 percent of Hispanic young adults in California have an accurate perception of college’s costs.

Therefore, a higher sticker price for Harvard’s tuition only cements the image of Harvard as a place for the few and far between—for the students and families that can “afford” a top-tier education.

This is the basic assumption of the “Free Harvard, Fair Harvard” ticket for the Board of Overseers, which has recently gained attention for its platform to eliminate undergraduate tuition altogether.

“If Harvard eliminated tuition, very quickly almost everyone in America would know about it, and a lot less affluent families… would suddenly consider Harvard for the first time,” said Ron Unz, one of the campaign’s candidates.

In addition, “Free Harvard, Fair Harvard” recognizes the interests of the 30 percent of students whose families aren’t on financial aid.

These aren’t just multi-millionaires; the cutoff for financial aid hovers around an annual income of $250,000. After taxes, Harvard’s $60,000-plus tuition could mean over a third of a family’s income.

In this case, over 3 percent in tuition growth is no easy adjustment. These are people already making significant financial sacrifices to send their children to college, and Harvard continues to squeeze these individuals for more money, leaving them waiting to qualify for aid themselves.

Granted, tuition growth is not easy to solve, and it’s not just Harvard’s problem. It’s a national epidemic, with tuition rising at six times the rate of inflation per one estimate.

But Harvard is in a unique position to change its own course. Harvard has a $37.6 billion endowment, the interest of which alone could fund every undergraduate’s education in full.

With regards to the “Free Harvard, Fair Harvard” campaign, the University quickly reminded everyone that the endowment is not the free-for-all bank account that we like to imagine. Said University spokesperson Jeff Neal: “In reality, Harvard’s flexibility in spending from the endowment is limited by the fact that it must be maintained in perpetuity and that it is largely restricted by the explicit wishes of those who contributed the endowed funds.”

Yet there is a large difference between seeking free tuition and an end, or at least a slowdown, to tuition’s growth. If Harvard has good faith and rightly perceives its long-term interests, it should look to rein in tuition.

Until then, we students can expect an announcement soon about tuition hikes for next year.

Aaron J. Miller ’18, a Crimson editorial executive, is a government concentrator in Currier House.

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