In the past months we’ve heard a lot about the one percent and the 99 percent and, from one set of Harvard-Yale trash talk shirts, the 6.2 percent. I’d like to introduce a new number to the conversation: the five percent.
Those students occupying the Yard criticize the university as a bastion of stratification, enabling the ten percent to become the one percent and the onepercent to become the 0.1 percent. It is undeniable that Harvard has traditionally existed to perpetuate the uppermost class of American society, but in the last half-century it has attempted at least to equalize its admissions process. Through extensive financial aid and increasing disassociation from the prep school pipeline, Harvard has done its best to become a meritocratic institution.
Harvard’s true culpability lies in its complicity in the “brain drain” into finance and consulting, fields that produce very little and in fact leech off of other industries. These jobs are prestigious and lucrative, which explains why they are especially tempting for Ivy League types.
Here is one way that Harvard can solve both problems: abolish tuition as we know it in favor of a garnishment of future wages. This would instantly wipe away Harvard’s (already mistaken) reputation as a prohibitively expensive school available only to a wealthy elite as well as its habit of sending its brightest graduates into professions that revere avarice.
Though Harvard does provide excellent financial aid, tuition costs at private schools are rising at an average of 4.5 percent. The number jumps to 7.9 percent for cash-strapped public universities—numbers that far outpace inflation. The accessibility of private colleges for students with less affluent backgrounds has steadily increased since the passage of the G.I. Bill, but the price of an elite education can be asphyxiating. Obviously, not all schools can offer anywhere near the same kind of aid that Harvard can. Student loans can be a noose around the neck of a young graduate; even bankruptcy cannot eradicate the tens of thousands of dollars of debt that many students acquire. As students desperately try to find jobs that will allow them to pay off their debts, salary begins to supersede other factors like passion or service.
I propose that Harvard abolish tuition as we know it. In its place, students should agree upon matriculation, in a legally binding contract, that they will devote a small share of their future earnings to the University. Presumably, Harvard admits students partially based on expected successes in the real world. This success, in an uncorrupted system, translates into financial success—in fact, the $116,000 that the median Harvard graduate makes midway through his or her career ranks fourth in the world. When you compare that to the $46,000 median salary for all college graduates and keep in mind causation-correlation bias, the Harvard name is worth $70,000 per year, or 60 percent of your future salary.
Say Harvard institutes a system in which, starting at that meaty mid-career point in which the graduate is likely fully financially stable, it garnishes a mere five percent of the graduate’s annual earnings each year until retirement as payment for the graduate’s college experience twenty years prior. Assuming a 40-year-long career and plateaued earnings, this median graduate will pay a reasonable $5,800 per year—totaling at least $116,000 or the inflationary equivalent over the course of the latter half of his or her career. According to Harvard’s own stated data regarding tuition and financial aid, the average student pays the school $35,300 per year, or $141,202 in total. By spreading this burden out over the student’s financially independent future instead of his or her broke undergraduate years, the system becomes much more fair and the burden more manageable without resulting in a large net loss of income for the school.
College-aged students are the demographic least likely to be able to afford a college education. But their decision where to go to school should be theirs and theirs alone. This system would eliminate all the pain and work often associated with making ends meet for tuition bills or the large financial burden imposed on parents for four years.
Some people come to Harvard so they can get a high-paying investment-banking job and get rich; some come to prepare for a career in public service or non-profit work. Why should these groups be expected to pay the same rates? Those who get rich with help from the Harvard name should pay the favor back with a big tuition payment. Those who come here without dollar signs in their eyes, however, should not consider exorbitant tuition to be pushing them into a more lucrative field.
Harvard claims it wants to become less concerned with family background and more focused on ensuring student success in socially responsible fields—let it put its money where its mouth is.
Sam N. Adams ’14 is a Crimson editorial writer in Currier House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.