Harvard prides itself on its accessibility to low-income students. Indeed, Harvard’s financial aid packages are some of the best in the country. For example, students whose families make below $65,000, like 62 percent of families in the U.S., pay basically nothing for their Harvard education.
Yet Harvard’s student body is still much, much richer than the average group of American residents. As Justin Lanning ’12 noted in The Crimson last year, calculations based on information from the Harvard Financial Aid Office “come to the stunning conclusion that approximately 45.6 percent of Harvard undergraduates come from families with incomes above $200,000, placing them in the top 3.8 percent of American households. Even more shockingly, only about 4 percent of Harvard undergraduates come from the bottom quintile of U.S. incomes and a mere 17.8 percent come from the bottom three quintiles of U.S. incomes.” Despite the Financial Aid Initiative launched in 2004 and the efforts of Undergraduate Minority Recruitment Program, Harvard still has relatively few working- and middle-class students.
Of course, some of this disparity is due to Harvard’s admissions practices. For example, Harvard’s Admissions Office still considers legacy status in its admissions decisions, which advantages students whose parents have not just attended a university, but have attended Harvard, one of the most exclusive universities in the country (and financial aid packages weren’t nearly as generous one generation ago). Harvard also uses the SAT as a measure of aptitude, despite data suggesting that SAT scores correlate strongly with family income.
But beyond this, Harvard undoubtedly accepts more upper-class students than working-class students simply because it receives many more “strong” applications from students who have attended private schools or well-funded public schools than those who have not. Because of this, if Harvard truly wants a more socioeconomically diverse student body, it must address the structural issues that lead to well-off high school students producing better transcripts, test scores, essays, teacher recommendations, and alumni interviews than their low-income peers.
Our administrators and admissions officers do seem to believe in creating a more socioeconomically diverse Harvard. Former Harvard President Larry H. Summers, who launched the Financial Aid Initiative, declared in 2004, “We need to recognize that the most serious domestic problem in the United States today is the widening gap between the children of the rich and the children of the poor. Education is the most powerful weapon we have to address that problem.”
If Harvard’s administrators wish to reduce that gap, they cannot simply parade around statistics about the millions spent on financial aid each fiscal year. Instead, they must address structural issues in the U.S. education system that currently prevent working- and middle-class high school students from gaining admittance to “elite” universities.
For example, Harvard should stop opposing bills intended to tax universities. Rather, Harvard should either voluntarily pay taxes or increase its Payments in Lieu of Taxes to the cities of Cambridge and Boston (which are currently a small percentage of what Harvard would owe if it were not exempt from property taxes), which could be used by these cities to increase funding for public programs. Furthermore, Harvard should deploy its lobbying power and political force behind legislation that will increase funding to public schools across the country, especially in poor neighborhoods, so that schools can afford to pay teachers more and strengthen educational infrastructure.
This summer, Harvard President Drew G. Faust signed a letter urging the federal government to cut back spending on “entitlement programs” in an effort to prevent “slashing valuable investments in education.” Yet entitlement programs like the Child Care Tax Credit, food stamps, unemployment insurance, and subsidized housing are essential to Harvard’s mission of matriculating a more diverse student body; students from poor families depend on these social services as they make their way through the public education system.
Of course, even when working-class students do gain admission to Harvard, simply offering generous financial aid packages to compensate for high tuition prices is not a perfect solution. Students across the world have noted that, if education is a human right, it must be free: groups ranging from Students United for a Free CUNY to CLASSE, a student organization in Quebec, have recently demanded free public higher education. But Harvard’s tuition continues to rise at a much higher rate than inflation each year, and Harvard seems unlikely to take the lead in moving towards inexpensive higher education.
If Harvard’s administrators are committed to increasing the number of working-class and middle-class students at Harvard, they must address the structural roots of educational inequality. Of course, Harvard doesn’t seem likely to do this soon—but meanwhile, the Admissions Office should recognize that simply touting Harvard’s Net Price Calculator or even allocating a million more dollars to Harvard’s financial aid budget will not make Harvard’s undergraduate population more socioeconomically diverse.
Sandra Y. L. Korn ’14, a Crimson editorial executive, is a joint history of science and studies of women, gender, and sexuality concentrator in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.