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Harvard likes to pride itself on its financial accessibility, the generosity of its aid packages, and the socioeconomic diversity of its classes (though there is of course still much progress to be made). These are good and worthy goals, and that perhaps explains why it is so sobering each and every time the University falls short. The Crimson’s recent article highlighting the financial cost of textbooks is one such example. Many low-income students—as well as many students not on financial aid—feel pressured to take classes with less expensive course materials to avoid undue pecuniary burdens. We believe the best path forward is for Harvard to incorporate textbooks into the cost of tuition, enabling students to make need-blind academic decisions.
As a liberal arts university, Harvard endeavors to enable students to explore, discover, and learn in a wide range of subjects—this is the motivation behind the Program in General Education; the University’s philosophy is one that encourages broad-based learning and celebrates all disciplines, no matter how obscure. Freshmen are encouraged to try new things, to experiment, and to move beyond their comfort zone. College, as the theory goes, is a time of new people, new ideas, and new perspectives.
That ethos is at the heart of much of what Harvard does. Unfortunately, it is all too easy to overlook the seemingly minor roadblocks that needlessly circumscribe that ethic. Textbooks are a clear example: By placing a different financial cost on each course, the University inadvertently pushes students away from courses with pricey textbooks and course materials, funneling them instead toward less expensive courses. In short, the costs of textbooks are too often preventing students from pursuing their passions.
While financial aid does cover textbooks, to consider that a panacea would assume that those not covered have no financial considerations whatsoever. The reality is that for many Harvard students of many income backgrounds, monetary concerns are a serious worry; as an example, the extraordinary cost of The Principles of Economics (written by N. Gregory Mankiw, chair of the Economics Department) might be enough to dissuade a freshman from pursuing introductory economics. Our current system thus effectively provides a tiered system where academic flexibility is only available to those with the means to pursue it.
We believe that Harvard should price textbooks into tuition and provide them free of charge at the start of each semester. For lower-income students, standard financial aid considerations would apply. Removing the financial differential between classes would remove the economic worries of taking classes such as Economics 10. Indeed, despite the increase in stated tuition, the actual cost borne by each family would remain constant given that textbooks today are either priced into financial aid or paid for out of pocket.
As we have stated many times in the past, Harvard’s financial aid program is critical. We must not rest on our laurels, however, content in the knowledge that we have achieved a modicum of socioeconomic diversity; rather, it is imperative that Harvard work to eliminate the areas in which family wealth still matters. When it comes to textbooks and the academic experience, it is time to take the next step forward.
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