UPDATED: November 9, 2015, at 1:45 p.m.
The price tag on a Harvard undergraduate education, when adjusted for inflation, increased by nearly one-third between 1998 and 2015, according to a recently released report by The Chronicle of Higher Education.
The report tracked the changes in the “sticker price,” or the published tuition and required fees, at 3,417 institutions across America between 1998 and 2015. The 2015 “sticker price” for Harvard, $45,278, marked a more than 31 percent inflation-adjusted increase from the corresponding 1998 price.
Over the same period, and particularly in the last decade, the College's financial aid program has also grown significantly. In 2004, then-University President Lawrence H. Summers launched the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative, and that year the College spent $73 million on aid, according to Rachael Dane, a Harvard spokesperson. In 2014 that figure was $170 million, Dane wrote in an email, and the average college student paid $12,000 for tuition, room, and board.
The tuition report also tracked changes in room-and-board costs for the same set of institutions between 2008 and 2015. Harvard’s room-and-board costs increased by more than 26 percent between 2008 and 2015.
Howard E. Gardner ’65, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, did not find the results surprising.
“While four-year liberal arts colleges do not openly collude with one another, their rises in tuition are amazingly parallel over the years: roughly 4-5% in recent years,” Gardner wrote in an email, stating that colleges try to “avoid making the biggest raise because it looks bad, but they have little incentive to be at the bottom of the pack.”
Gardner added, however, that students do not commonly compare schools based on these small differences in price.
“We don’t hear students say, ‘I am going to College A rather than College B because it raised its tuition 1% less than its competitor,’” he wrote.
According to Gardner, Harvard’s large endowment enables the University to be less financially dependent upon tuition than almost any other school and to enjoy “more degrees of freedom” in setting its tuition, though Harvard “does not take advantage of” the freedom.
“The losers are private colleges and universities that are not well endowed, cannot provide sufficient scholarships to all needy students, and yet don't want to charge more than the wealthy schools, lest they lose even more students to those wealthy schools,” he wrote.
Gardner considers Princeton to be Harvard’s closest competitor in terms of tuition independence. According to the new report, Princeton saw a nearly 25 percent increase in its tuition and fees since 1998, while Yale has seen an even larger spike in the cost of its undergraduate education, jumping a more than 37 percent in the past 17 years.The figures used in the report represent charges to first-time, full-time undergraduates during a nine-month academic year. The calculations did not include the effects of differing meal plans, grants, and other forms of student aid on the cost of attendance.