Must a Fair Harvard be Free?
In the fall of 1971, when Harvard freshmen arrived on campus for the first time, fresh notebooks and sharpened pencils in hand, the university demanded $2,600 for the privilege of attending. Over the past forty years, some things about Harvard have not changed: the prestige and the bustle of Harvard-Yard for instance. But at least one thing has changed, in a dramatic and unprecedented trajectory: tuition. In the fall of 2015, Harvard freshmen and their families owed the university up to $45,278 in tuition. Forty years. A 1600 percent increase.
While many families will always write checks to Harvard, no matter what it costs, some members of the university community are beginning to push back, and Ron K. Unz, a software developer and Chairman of UNZ.org, is leading the effort.
According to Unz, Harvard should abolish tuition for all of its undergraduates. With an endowment of $37.6 billion, Harvard is in control of more wealth than any other university. Yet it still chooses to charge its roughly 6,600 undergraduates $45,278 in tuition every year. Undergraduate tuition currently accounts for roughly $200 million of Harvard’s annual revenue. This pales in comparison to the typical investment income from its endowment, which in some years climbs to over five billion dollars.
With his “Free Harvard, Fair Harvard” campaign, Unz demands that Harvard abolish tuition, based on the idea that $200 million is, for the university, a drop in the bucket. While this idea may seem appealing to some, others point to glaring flaws, claiming that the idea is misguided and would hurt more than help.
The issues, though, are clear: in America, college tuition is rising, presidential candidates disagree about education policy, and a few super-rich universities have accrued billions in endowment funds. Facing these headwinds, Unz has proposed a solution that he thinks will spark drastic change in the world of higher education.
The Free Harvard, Fair Harvard campaign has two main goals: to abolish tuition for all Harvard undergraduates and to make the admissions process more transparent. It is the former goal that has attracted far more attention than the latter. Unz is the chairman of the campaign, which is comprised of him and four other Harvard alumni, including five-time presidential candidate Ralph Nader. The five alumni have, in an effort to see their goals realized, entered the election for Harvard’s Board of Overseers as petition candidates.
Every year, the Harvard Alumni Association nominates a group of alumni as candidates for the Board of Overseers. Members of the board serve staggered terms of six years, and Harvard graduates vote to elect new members from those nominated. Others who do not receive a nomination from the Alumni Association may enter the race by gathering the signatures of 201 Harvard alumni.
The Board of Overseers has no formal legislative power, but it exerts broad influence over the university’s actions and policies. Members of the board use their diverse backgrounds to give advice and counsel to the administration without actually having the authority to institute any formal changes themselves.
While the Board of Overseers does not have the authority to abolish tuition, Unz told The Politic that if Harvard alumni elect him or his partners to the board, it will cause an “earthquake.” This would put enough pressure on the university that it would have to implement the reforms their campaign demands, he said. Still, Unz admitted that the board has no direct connection to the university’s investment decisions. However, he drew parallels to the last time a petition candidate won a spot on the board, which was when Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu ran in 1989, leading Harvard to divest from South Africa.
He believes the pressure of his election would be enough to overcome outspoken opposition from Harvard University President Drew G. Faust and various others such as Robert Reischauer, former senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation. Unz argues that by making tuition free, Harvard removes the barriers, real or perceived, preventing high-achieving, low-income students from applying to the school.
“Abolishing tuition gets you more free media than just about anything,” Unz claimed, regarding American universities. He says this free press will ensure that low-income students realize Harvard is accessible to them.
Still, tuition may not be a barrier for low-income students interested in a ending Harvard. Doctor Sandy Baum, Urban Institute Fellow and co-author of College Board’s annual publications Trends in College Pricing and Trends in Student Aid, told The Politic, “Harvard is already tuition free for low-income students.” She disagreed with how Unz characterizes the potential effects of free Harvard tuition, claiming that it would only serve to benefit those who can already afford to pay the full amount.
Baum bases her stance on the fact that Harvard promises full financial aid to all families with annual incomes below $65,000, and families with household earnings ranging from $65,000 to $150,000 will pay zero to ten percent of their income. She noted that Harvard has been active in publicizing its financial aid program.
Unlike Unz, who thinks that low-income students don’t apply to Harvard because of a perceived financial barrier, Baum cited the fact that many low-income students do not believe they can get into Harvard. She added that for many, it does not matter where they go to college as long as they are able to attend. Free tuition, she claimed, will not remove either of these barriers.
But both she and Unz agree that Harvard should do more to fix the underrepresentation of low-income students at the university. Unz argues that the solution is free tuition, while Baum advocates for greater outreach in rural areas. She also cites the need for increased efforts to make life for undergraduates better while at Harvard, through the creation of emergency funds for students on financial aid. In regards to Baum’s point that free tuition would mostly benefit the wealthy, Unz seemed unconcerned. In fact, Unz went on to argue that by abolishing tuition, Harvard puts pressure on its peer institutions, such as Yale, Princeton, and Stanford, to follow suit. He even believes such measures would impact public higher education.
According to Unz, “[Abolishing tuition] will also lead public colleges and universities to begin reining in and cutting their costs, their bloated administrative expenses, and therefore cutting tuition drastically as well.”
This progression seems especially relevant now, as Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) draws immense support in the Democratic presidential primary with free public college as part of his platform.
The idea of free public college isn’t new in America. President Barack Obama has tried to push in that direction with the America’s College Promise Act, which gives incentives for states to offer free community college to eligible students. Currently three states, Tennessee, Minnesota, and Oregon, have adopted the policy, and, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, legislation is pend- ing in ten more.
But free community college and free four-year public colleges and universities are two very different things. W. Taylor Reveley, III, president of The College of William and Mary, talked to The Politic about how he thinks free public college would a ect him and other public college administrators.
“There is no way on earth that taxpayers, whether federal, state or local, or a mix of all three, are ever going to pay enough of the expenses of public colleges and universities that they can forego tuition,” argued Reveley.
Currently, Virginia taxpayers only provide 12 percent of William and Mary’s operating budget. Tuition covers 45 percent.
Under his College for All Act, Sanders proposes that the federal government would pay for two-thirds of the foregone tuition, with states covering the remaining third. He plans on implementing a “Robin Hood Tax” on Wall Street, claiming it will cover the higher federal tuition subsidies.
“There’s a bunch of things that may get very problematic,” Professor Robert B. Archibald, Chancellor Professor of Economics at William and Mary, told The Politic in regards to Sanders’s College for All Act.
Archibald, co-author of Why Does College Cost So Much?, explained that the policy would create an enormous disparity in the subsidies the federal government pays to certain states. He added that states with high tuition rates would receive large federal subsidies while states with low tuition rates would receive low subsidies. These subsidies would also come with spending guidelines mandated by the federal government. He thinks that both of these factors will lead to widespread opposition to the bill in Congress, making it nearly impossible to pass.
Additionally, assuming Sanders manages to win the election and get Congress to pass his plan for free college, private institutions already struggling financially would feel a tremendous amount of pressure to become more affordable. This would lead many to go out of business, Archibald said.
However, some believe that the conversation surrounding tuition-free college is misguided, with the real problem lying in the quality of America’s higher education.
“The issue of what we charge for college and the effort to get everybody into college simply overlooks the profound need we have to make college a meaningful source of high quality learning that prepares graduates,” Doctor Carol G. Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, argued to The Politic.
She added that higher education must prepare students to become meaningful contributors to society. She claimed that the platform of free tuition acts as “a good sound byte” for politicians to flaunt and use to gain support in campaigns.
“It’s a good distractor from … the issues that really need to be tackled,” she said.
In regards to the Free Harvard, Fair Harvard campaign, she “devoutly hopes it fails.”
So the idea of free tuition seems to be precariously contrived no matter the realm, public or private. But certainly the ends that Sanders and Unz both pursue with their policies are laudable. The question we should be asking ourselves then, is whether free college is an end worth pursuing?
Yale students do not seem to be as sure that it is. When asked whether schools like Harvard and Yale should abolish tuition, four of the five Yale students interviewed said they liked the idea in theory, but wondered whether it would be practical in reality.
Phoebe Chatfield ’18, in considering the feasibility of free tuition, noted that there are other, simpler things to consider first, such as eliminating the student income contribution expected of those on full financial aid.
The one dissenter of the five Yalies was Cameron Riach ’19, who argued along similar lines as Unz. He echoed that free tuition would attract a more socioeconomically diverse group of students, since low-income students would no longer view Harvard and Yale as too expensive.
This disagreement parallels some of the contentions between Unz and his opponents. The four students who had doubts regarding the possibility of free college tuition have good reason to be skeptical. Not only would free tuition lead to a fairly significant loss in revenue, but it would also serve to fund only those who can already afford to pay tuition.
So the pragmatic and economic answer to whether Harvard should abolish tuition seems clear: it should not adopt a policy that would only give more money back to the wealthy. But what is not so clear is whether the benefits that Unz speaks of would outweigh the loss of revenue. Namely, would low-income students view Harvard as more accessible, and if so, how much more likely would they be to apply and matriculate?
The answer remains unclear. A 2013 study by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research showed that low-income students are much more likely to apply to selective institutions when provided with basic information about the application process and net costs. This means that if schools like Harvard increase their outreach to low-income students, they might accomplish the same goal Unz aims for. But this could also indicate that the tremendous amount of publicity from free tuition would have a greater impact than any other form of outreach.
In 2013, a few months after the Stanford study was published, Harvard began the Harvard College Connection initiative, an effort by the Admissions Office to reach out through digital media, to students from diverse backgrounds. Initiatives like this, along with the university’s generous financial aid, show that the school is committed to attracting a more socioeconomically diverse group of students. But just how committed is it? There is no question that Harvard and its peers could do more to attract low-income applicants. But that does not necessarily mean they should go so far as to abolish tuition.
One thing is for sure. Even if Unz does not accomplish his goal of free tuition at Harvard, he has certainly drawn attention to one of the most important issues facing America’s elite institutions.
Ivy League schools and their peers need to continue thinking of ways to remedy the underrepresentation of low-income students. If schools like Harvard want the best available, they are going to have to ensure that the top students from the lowest income brackets realize they have access to these selective and historically wealthy schools.
Harvard announces election results for its Board of Overseers on May 26. The Democratic Party offcially nominates its presidential candidate in July. The results of both elections could have a tremendous impact on the future of higher education in America. But you probably should not go blowing next year’s tuition just yet.