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When University President Lawrence H. Summers unveiled his $14 million program to boost graduate student aid this month, he stressed that this undertaking—while significant—is only a first step. Indeed, it is a positive first step. We only wish our leaps could be larger and that the goal of making graduate school possible for all students, regardless of financial need, could be realized sooner.
The centerpiece of the new plan is a Presidential Scholars program that will direct scholarship grants to graduate students interested in pursuing careers in public service. The new scholarships will help students across the University from the Graduate School of Education to the Kennedy School of Government to the Graduate School of Design. Deans at all the affected schools have said the new grants come at an opportune time and will help to make the schools more competitive to applicants.
However, Summers’ plan does not go far enough. This new program will simply level the playing field, since many other schools—including Yale and Brown—offer similar scholarship grants. Although we can laud ourselves for finally catching up with our competitors, Harvard—with its enormous endowment—ought to be in the business of leading the pack where financial aid is concerned.
It has been estimated that the new Presidential Scholars program will affect 200 to 300 students—a promising number, but still just a fraction of the thousands of graduate students studying at Harvard. Furthermore, the program is funded for only three years. Harvard’s hope is that fund raising efforts will eventually allow for the program’s expansion. In November, Summers announced a new University Fund for Graduate Student Aid, for just this purpose. We hope this new initiative will induce wealthy alumni from across the University to help lessen the financial burden of graduate school for all qualified applicants.
The other aspect of the new plan is a low-interest loan program open to all graduate students through a partnership with Citibank’s Student Loan Corporation. Students in the University’s graduate and professional schools currently borrow approximately $45 million per year from non-federal sources to help pay for tuition, fees and living expenses. The new loans, which are below-market rate, will save roughly $2,500 for a student borrowing $40,000 over two years. Again, this is a good step, but a small one.
The University’s goal should be to ensure that all accepted graduate students are able to attend Harvard, regardless of their financial situations. The problem with loans, even low-interest ones, is that they leave graduate students in massive debt upon completing their studies, decreasing the likelihood that they will go on to low-paying jobs in public service. But the option of public service ought to be available to all. It should not just be a luxury for those graduates wealthy enough to make sizeable loan payments.
We are not condemning Summers’ plan; it is a much-needed first step on the long road to perfecting financial aid for graduate students. But Harvard need not spend too long patting itself on the back when it has so many miles left to go.
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