The Value Of a Harvard Education

An Examination of the Cost and Worth of Four Years at the College

Today's graduates of Harvard College have paid $107,581 in tuition and fees over the last four years.

During this time, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) has discussed ways to shrink class sections, curb grade inflation, limit summa cum laude degrees and two weeks ago approved the most drastic changes to the Core curriculum since its inception in 1974.

This fall, the Faculty will examine its overall undergraduate requirements, study the language requirement and begin the review of concentrations that Dean of FAS Jeremy R. Knowles has long promised once Core reform is complete.

The extraordinary flurry of curricular reform, culminating in a year when Harvard fell from its long-established top spot in the U.S. News and World Report survey, suggests that Harvard is reevaluating how it educates its undergraduates.

"I think we're in for a very interesting period in undergraduate education," says outgoing Dean of Undergraduate Education David Pilbeam.


And with student tuition costs continually out-stepping inflation over the last decade, the question begs: what is the value of a Harvard undergraduate education today?

Breaking Down the Tuition Dollar

University administrators say the cost of educating a Harvard student is much greater than the revenue gathered from tuition.

Former University president Derek C. Bok says that if you consider the accommodations, meals, health and athletic facilities and academic and extracurricular opportunities Harvard students receive, the cost would amount to about $100 per night.

"If you were to stay at a Days Inn and join the health club and get Ivy League lectures on tape, you'd be over $100 pretty soon," he says.

The University's educational expenditure per student last year, as reported by U.S. News and World Report, totaled $42,902. With undergraduate tuition and fees totalling $28,896, it would appear that students are getting a bargain of more than $14,000.

University Director of Public Affairs Alex Huppe says that Harvard does not regularly make its own calculation of the cost of educating students.

The University's only attempt in recent memory to comprehensively determine the "real cost" of educating the average student in the College was conducted a few years ago by an outside firm, according to Knowles.

The study attempted to calculate the fraction of FAS expenditures--including Faculty salaries and research costs, libraries and facilities cost and administrative costs--spent on undergraduates.

"It's a complicated question," Knowles says.

"Out of the FAS budget, what these wise analysts concluded was the real cost was about one-and-a-half times the charged cost," or close to $45,000, he says.

Knowles says that analyzing per student expenditures at Harvard is complicated due to many factors, particularly the inclusion of both undergraduate and graduate students in the FAS.

A close look at the FAS annual budget for the fiscal year of 1996 breaks down Harvard's educational costs per student, lumping undergraduate and graduate students together:

*Harvard's libraries, third in size only to the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library, are expensive. Total library costs were roughly $7,670 per student last year, more than the cost of Faculty salaries ($5,100).

* Faculty salaries make up a small portion of total instructional costs, which comprise $12,600 of the student dollar. These costs include instructional support, administrative and support staff for professors, fringe benefits, teaching fellows and post-doctorate students and faculty recruitment.

* Harvard spend much more per student on athletics ($980) than it goes on counseling and advising services ($300). All in all, student services comprise $3,370 of FAS's per student expenditures.

* Operations and maintenance costs for housing were $3,450 per undergraduate last year. By comparison, the University charged students $3,510 for housing.

Is It Worth It?

Determining the University's cost to educate students is difficult, but administrators say that assessing the worth of a Harvard education is an even more formidable task.

"Measuring the value of an education, outside of measuring the value of a symphony orchestra, is one of the most difficult things to do," Pilbeam says.

Pilbeam adds that the simple economic laws of supply and demand show that a Harvard education is as valuable as ever.

"In a liberal society, the only way to decide the value of something is whether people still want it," he says. "The only answer for that is that demand seems to be increasing."

In recent years, the admission rate has dropped to nearly 10 percent, due almost entirely to rising numbers of applicants.

Another way to appraise the value of a Harvard education, Bok says, is to look at "the return on the investment."

"If you pay $30,000 a year, does the average Harvard-educated student earn enough more than the graduates of other colleges or junior colleges that pay less to make it worthwhile?" Bok asks.

Most observers agree that the return of future earnings outweighs the investment in a Harvard education.

"If you use earning [as the gauge], I sense that it looks like the return on the investment is rather good," says Reisinger Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures William M. Todd III, who will become dean of undergraduate education next month.

Indeed, three economists from the University of Pennsylvania recently tried to quantify the financial return on a first-rate education, according to a March issue of Time Magazine.

The economists found that students who graduated from Penn will most likely earn 56.6 percent more than if they only receive a high school diploma. However, students tend to earn only 37.1 percent more if they graduates from a top-notch public university, according to the article.

Director of the Office of Career Services William Wright-Swadel says he believes that more households are realizing the benefits of a Harvard education.

"I think there's a sense that a private education is a better value than it's ever been, in part because of the education and in part, the network of people that you meet," Wright-Swadel says.

"I don't think that the value has necessarily changed, but the awareness in the community of that reality is now quite clear," he adds.

L. Fred Jewett '57, former dean of the College and former dean of admissions and financial aid, says promoting the investment of a Harvard education is not "a hard-sell process."

"If you maintain the quality of the assumption would be that smart people are more likely to be able to see the reasons why that investment would be worthwhile," Jewett says.

"Is a Harvard education worth the investment? Of course!" says Knowles. "Try elsewhere, and see how quickly you yearn for the quality and talent of your Harvard peers, and of the faculty offerings that are available."

Assistant Dean for Undergraduate Education Jeffrey Wolcowitz says that there are other ways to assess the changing value of a Harvard education, but most are hard to document.

Consider the following:

*Students' educational experience has been augmented by diversity in the student body, Faculty members say.

"I very strongly believe that one's education is a matter of not only coursework, but also interaction with fellow students," Todd says.

* Despite complaints of overflowing sections in large courses, many members of the Faculty say they believe that there has been a move towards more small group instruction over the past decade.

"I expect that you would find more tutorial teaching done by senior Faculty than 10 years ago," Wolcowitz says.

*Students have more choices than they ever have had in choosing courses and concentrations, with a steady expansion of the number of courses offered and many opportunities for undergraduates to focus their studies in ways not possible just a decade or two ago.

* Information technology, which has brought with it Web sites, newsgroups and e-mail, has enhanced the learning environment outside of the classroom.

"It's a lot easier to track down information, to correspond with faculty, to correspond with classmates and to have open discussions about course material," says Assistant Professor of Computer Science Margo I. Seltzer '83.


Does this add up to a higher-quality undergraduate educational experience?

Not necessarily, according to past, current and incoming deans of undergraduate education.

Marquand Professor of English Lawrence Buell says the value of the Harvard "name" in the outside world has not dwindled, but questions whether students receive the best possible education.

"The members of the class of 1997 do not have to worry that the coinage has been debased," says Buell, who is also former dean of undergraduate education. "It's whether while at Harvard they're getting the very best quality of an education that the institution can deliver."

Todd points out that the growing credentials of incoming students makes it difficult to judge the quality of a Harvard education over time.

"We may do a better job than we did 20 to 30 years ago," Todd says. "But on the other hand, we get better products."

When asked if the quality of undergraduate education has improved during his time at Harvard, Pilbeam hesitates before saying that he believes it has.

"Who's to say whether it's higher quality? For most people, it's more interesting," he says. "It's probably better...yes, I would say it's better."

But at least one former administrator is optimistic about changing the undergraduate curriculum.

"[Harvard's] always changing and for the better I think. Hopefully, [a Harvard education] would change. We all should change," says Henry Chauncey '28, former assistant dean of the College.

Chauncey also points to unquantifiable factors as those that add the most to the value of undergraduate education.

Noting the College's increased diversity, he says the value of a Harvard education is "great."

"Most of the education one gets in college is from other students," he notes.

Where the money goes

A sampling of Harvard's educational costs, divided by the number of students in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences:

Where the money goesA sampling of Harvard's educational costs, divided by the number of students in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences:Robert J. CoolbrithGraphicComponent of Cost  Cost Per StudentInstructional Costs  $12,600Libraries  $7,670Student services  $3,370Housing Operations and Maintenance  $3,450TOTAL EDUCATIONAL EXPENDITURES  $42,902Source: Faculty of Arts and Sciences Budge