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Supporting Harvard’s Sagging Midsection

Harvard is moving into uncharted territory with its most recent expansion of the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative (HFAI). But Harvard’s progress thus far in enlarging financial aid awards for lower- and middle-income students has not tested the true, underlying goals of the initiative. Only by extending HFAI to cover middle-income students can Harvard cement the initiative’s reputation as one based on egalitarian principles, not just on the enhancement of Harvard’s image.

The new ground on which Harvard and HFAI are treading resembles a long, graded hike up to a high and rocky plateau. Broken down by family income, about 25 percent of Harvard families make less than $80,000 a year. Next year, HFAI will address significantly more of these families’ financial needs, including the elimination of parental contribution for families earning under $60,000 a year. As impressive as this sounds, these initial 25 percent of families are the metaphorical warm-up jaunt through scrub brush and pine needles in anticipation of the difficult, rocky climb ahead.

For all of the positive press that HFAI has generated for Harvard, it has cost the University relatively little. The most recent expansion of the initiative requires a $2.4 million increase in a nearly $90 million budget. No chump change. But $2.4 million pales in comparison to the money that will be necessary to make a Harvard education universally accessible to the many more numerous middle-income families sending children to Harvard.

In the press release for this recent HFAI expansion, Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby said that “Harvard is actually more affordable for many students than public colleges or universities.” Note the qualifier: “many.” Certainly, Harvard is more affordable for students whose other alternatives are paying out-of-state tuition for an elite public university. Where Harvard continues to fail, however, is in providing an acceptable level of financial aid to middle-income families. These families, which make between $110,000 and $200,000 a year, have been excluded entirely from HFAI’s windfalls. And they are many more numerous than less well-off families. Extrapolating from numbers cited by Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67, it appears that nearly two-thirds of the College’s student body comes from middle-income roots. They represent $170 million in tuition fees. Yet many middle-income students are no better off in terms of their family’s financial situation and the financial exigencies placed on them by the College than their lower-income peers.

Financial aid calculations are Byzantine and specific to each individual student. Nonetheless, judging from the anecdotes of middle-income students, Harvard’s aid awards could stand to improve for these students as they have for lower-income students. Families making about $110,000 a year that send two children to Harvard end up nearly broke. With a considerably smaller aid award, middle-income parents are in many cases find it more difficult to maintain their standard of living than lower-income families while still paying for their children’s education. Their children end up with more debt post-Harvard than students from poorer families. And they work soulless summer jobs to meet their $2,150 summer savings obligation instead of enjoying a summer abroad. Like affirmative action for income brackets, the increased ability of lower-income students to access aid and scholarships has made Harvard more affordable for them than for some middle-income students. This outcome is absolutely wonderful. But it should be only a transitional phase for HFAI.

Harvard’s first priority still must be to target and attract underrepresented and lower-income students—people for whom HFAI is currently tailor-made. Fitzsimmons and the successors of University President Lawrence H. Summers and Dean Kirby cannot stop there, however. If Summers truly believes that “the larger the lake you fish in, the bigger fish you will catch,” then he should ensure that Harvard’s financial aid hook is baited with middle-income lures as well. The problem, as I alluded to before, is that these lures will be very expensive because there are so many more middle-income students than lower-income students. As HFAI progresses, there will be less media fanfare for more money, and fewer sexy minority statistics in return for bigger investments. But supporting middle-income students is not a case of diminishing returns. Rather it is a test of HFAI’s true motivations—a moral imperative. If the initiative runs out of political steam and endowment cash just as it becomes more difficult and more expensive, then HFAI will appear to be a ploy to burnish Harvard’s image, not the genuine attempt it is to equalize the financial playing field of higher education.

Though a Harvard education will likely never be free, it should be affordable to all. Traversing middle-income terrain will be a more difficult task for HFAI. But the moral rewards that lie beyond promise to be truly breathtaking.

Alex Slack ’06, a former Crimson editorial chair, is a history concentrator in Leverett House.