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Diversitas? Take a Closer Look

By Justin Lanning

There’s been a fair amount of discussion on campus over the past few months about income inequality in the U.S., Harvard’s role in such inequality, and the socioeconomic diversity of Harvard students themselves. With so little publicized information available on the socioeconomic diversity of Harvard undergraduates, I hope to provide reliable facts and analysis to help thin the fog of misinformation.

The data behind the following breakdown comes straight from our own Financial Aid Office, particularly their fact sheet (based on the 2010-2011 academic year). I also used statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau on the distributions of U.S. incomes.

According to the census, about 96 percent of American households make less than $200,000 a year. Last year, approximately 3,610 students applied for financial aid from this income bracket, out of a total of 6,636 currently enrolled undergraduates. It seems fair to assume that almost all students whose families make below $200,000 applied for financial aid, considering that the process is quite easy to complete and families stand so much to gain. Harvard policy states that families with annual incomes below $60,000 pay only a student contribution of a few thousand dollars, and families with annual incomes between $60,000 and $180,000 pay the student contribution plus a family contribution averaging 10 percent of annual income. Even at the top of the latter bracket families would pay approximately $20,000 compared to the sticker price of $52,652, saving over $30,000 for a few hours of work. Harvard also makes specific note that financial aid is still available above $200,000, and at least 10 percent of students receiving non-repayable aid fall into this income range.

If we do assume that almost all students from families making less than $200,000 annually applied for financial aid, we 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.

The financial aid numbers also refute the misconception that Harvard is more accessible for poor families than wealthy ones. We can examine the true burden of paying Harvard tuition by comparing income-after-Harvard, or a family’s remaining yearly income after paying Harvard, with their income-before-Harvard. The only possible range where families’ income-after-Harvard could be lower than those with smaller incomes-before-Harvard is $60,000-$66,667. For this condition to be met, Harvard would have to require a full 10 percent family contribution, bringing income-after-Harvard to slightly below $60,000. Only families earning between $54,000-$60,000, in which range the family contribution does not exist, could have higher incomes-after-Harvard than families with greater incomes-before-Harvard. However, outside of these unlikely marginal conditions, families making more than $66,667 a year  will always have greater incomes-after-Harvard than that of families with smaller incomes-before-Harvard. While some complain that wealthier families bear a disproportionately higher burden, I find it difficult to sympathize with the complaint that a $20,000 annual payment for a Harvard education is an unbearable burden on a family with a $180,000 annual income.

Unfortunately, Harvard structurally encourages obliviousness to our own skewed income distribution by misnaming our financial aid initiatives. Our “low income initiative” covers families with incomes up to the 58.3rd percentile of annual incomes, and our “middle income initiative” covers those with incomes from the 58.3rd percentile to the approximately 94th percentile. How incomes above the 50th percentile count as “low” and ones above the 90th percentile count as “middle” is beyond me. The self-held myth that Harvard undergraduates come from the “middle class” is a dangerous delusion indeed, and Harvard’s at-best negligence or at-worst complicity in perpetuating this belief is concerning. At a school whose motto is truth, we’re far from forthcoming about how wealthy our students actually are.

While the photos on our admissions materials may indicate other priorities, the educational value of diversity stems from variety of thought and experience. It can hardly be said that Harvard is socioeconomically homogeneous but it would still be a stretch to call it socioeconomically diverse. Harvard may be missing some of the most important factors that give value to diversity. Undoubtedly, Harvard is more socioeconomically diverse than ever before but, as with all things, better does not always equal good. In a (hopefully) meritocratic admissions system, our current socioeconomic distribution raises difficult questions about the role of financial capital—and its social and cultural capital correlates—in acquiring and displaying merit.

Justin Lanning ’12 is an Applied Organization Studies concentrator in Pforzheimer House.

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