FOR ALMOST THREE-QUARTERS of the high school seniors who want to accept Harvard's invitation to join the company of educatable men and women, there is a slight moment of hesitation before the RSVP. $10,000--probably more--and for only one year, Mom, Dad, and Johnny consider the mortgage, soaring energy costs, insurance, medical bills, food prices. Finally, Johnny ventures an "Are you sure we can afford it?" Dad looks at Mom, puts his hand on the young genius's shoulder and says gravely, "We'll have to tighten our belts a bit, son; but somehow we'll find a way."
After all, it's Harvard.
The University's financial officers anticipate that response; although they say they try desperately each year to avoid tuition hikes by cutting corners wherever possible, they admit that tuition is the most malleable sector of the budget. So when the Faculty's energy costs jump more than 50 per cent, as they did last year, or when inflation pushes up the cost of lab equipment, administrators know they can--however reluctantly--mark up the bill for a Harvard education. And inflation has left little room for any future cost-cutting budget tinkering. As Melissa D. Gerrity, assistant dean of the Faculty for finances, puts it, "I see gloom and doom on tuition--Dean Rosovsky is running out of pockets."
His tuition pocket, though, is somewhat of a bottomless pit. With the number of students applying to Harvard more than six times the number needed to fill Yard beds, the University could probably double tuition fees and still produce an acceptable Class of '85. Financial decision-makers should be commended for scrupulously avoiding any temptation of that sort. Their now familiar analogy--that the pricetag for a year at Harvard is about the same as the cost of a good new car--still holds true, even as tuition inches into double figures.
In tossing out that comparison, University financial officers are not shrugging off the extravagant cost of a Harvard education. But they note that while you pay more for your Cadillac, you also get more from it. Gerrity points out that if a student paid for his room and board alone--regardless of the exposure to Harvard's renowned Faculty and diverse student body--the annual cost would run only slightly lower than the present Harvard term bill. Then there's the privilege of using advanced equipment, hearing famous people speak on campus, and the possible long-run returns gained from a Harvard diploma. So although $10,000 a year might look like a lot, on closer examination it's a pretty good deal.
To some extent, of course, that's a cogent, coherent argument. Growing numbers of applications bear it out, and few graduates sue the University for not getting their money's worth. But there is another side to the financial story. The traditional sources of income may be shrinking; yet, hidden beneath layers of talk about inflation lie not a few smaller pockets. And where Harvard cuts corners--many of them sharply--it could be reaching deeper.
TO TELL STUDENTS that inflated energy costs directly affect tuition, for example, seems straightforward and reasonable--until one considers that it wasn't until last spring that the Faculty finally commissioned a study of its energy use. A small group of movers, led by Frederick H. Abernathy, McKay Professor of Mechanical Engineering, completed the initial phase of the study during the summer and found that a few conservation measures could cut energy consumption by 20 per cent in just one year. And Gerrity says that over in Byerly Hall, one man--Paul Morvay, assistant to the director of financial aid--underspent his budget by $700,000 simply by doing the legwork necessary to unearth obscure sources of aid.
For $40,000-plus, Harvard students deserve more of that kind of digging. The University could start by seriously looking at ways to reduce the amount of crowding and overcrowding in freshman dormitories and Houses, particularly in areas heavily in need of maintenance work. Although the Harvard Campaign--slated to have raked in $250 million by the time it ends in 1984--includes $12 million for House renovations and improvements, professional engineering firms have estimated that it would take $110 million or more to do the job. The University should investigate ways to avoid deferring maintenance--a practice that has contributed to today's high renovation costs--and should draw on resources such as Faculty members like Abernathy, for expert advice.
Further, although bureaucratio committees can aid in long-range prognostication (there are one or two looking into the housing problem now), Harvard owes it to its students to look into other ways of solving problems and, more important, to avoid bureaucratic mismanagment. The absence of American History courses in the course catalog last year and the paltry number offered this year are inexcusably blamed on poor juggling of the History Department's leave-taking schedule. This kind of foible does not stem from financial mismanagement, but Harvard students end up paying for it.
And the University should strive to cut through the red tape created by other institutions. Specifically, Harvard should take advantage of Vice President Mondale's renewed commitment to "excellence in higher education" by demanding its share of proposed increases in University research funds, especially in the wake of last March's federal cuts. But letting Mondale's promises ring with the hollowness of election-year rhetoric, Harvard would be passing up another opportunity to give its students their $10,000-worth.
Like any responsible entrepreneur, Harvard should systematically pass some of the savings that result from cost-cutting measures on to its customers. It also has the responsibility to solicit consumer input so that it can refine the product it offers. That means more than a token student or two on administrative committees. Idealistic and worn as the thought may be, the University must listen. Not only because a student might just have something valuable to say, but, more basically, because he has the right to say it. He has paid for it.
Those dues each student pays do not entitle him--at least logically--to criticize the University for directly mishandling his money. The Harvard Management Company points to its extremely impressive and respected track record and the sizable University endowment--well over $1.7 billion--that it proffers as evidence that Harvard is acting as wisely as it can. The "Every Tub On Its Own Botton" system, a pet phrase the Office of Budgets uses to connote Harvard's decentralized budget management, has functioned to insure informed budget planning and to discourage deficit spending. And though it might seem like the University is rolling in money, the tidy sums it has banked away are crucial to survival.
BUT ALL THAT DOES NOT excuse the University from looking for less dramatic, more subtle ways to fight tuition increases and to provide students more for their money. Morvay's salary paid for his $700,000 financial-aid find, and the seed sowed for Abernathy & company's energy study should reap many millions of dollars in savings in the next few decades. Financially, the University can afford to finance future deficit budgets by announcing more years of 13.2-per-cent tuition increases. Ethically, Mom, Dad, and Johnny deserve more than a term bill stamped with caveat emptor.