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One slate of candidates for the Harvard Board of Overseers purports to offer a solution. Led by conservative Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron K. Unz ’83, the “Free Harvard, Fair Harvard” ticket is making the case that Harvard, with its $37.6 billion endowment, should make undergraduate tuition free. The underlying logic is that free tuition would attract a more socioeconomically and racially diverse student body. The slate is also critical of race-based affirmative action, which it claims is unfair, particularly towards Asians.
Despite its appealing name, on both tuition and affirmative action the “Free Harvard, Fair Harvard” slate is off the mark. We continue to believe that affirmative action is crucial to ensuring that Harvard remains a diverse, equitable, and transformational institution. Moreover, we do not endorse the idea of eradicating tuition at Harvard entirely. As we have previously opined on Senator Bernie Sanders’ proposal for free tuition at public colleges, such a plan is unreasonable. Put simply, free tuition would provide an unnecessary subsidy to students whose families who can afford to pay for college.
The slate’s proposal on tuition also faces a practical obstacle: Harvard’s endowment, as it is currently structured, would be incapable of making free tuition a reality. “There is a common misconception that endowments, including Harvard’s, can be accessed like bank accounts,” Harvard spokesperson Jeff Neal wrote in a statement on the slate’s ideas. “In reality, Harvard’s flexibility in spending from the endowment is limited by the fact that it must be maintained in perpetuity and that it is largely restricted by the explicit wishes of those who contributed the endowed funds.”
In short, free tuition is neither a feasible nor an appropriately targeted approach to making Harvard more equitable. Other reforms, however, would help reduce cost barriers for deserving applicants. Despite Harvard’s generous financial aid program—the budget of which often increases faster than tuition—some costs still interfere with low-income students’ ability to take full advantage of their time in Cambridge. Expenses like textbooks, printing, and laundry can cause undue stress for many students. These issues are not new, but Harvard must renew its efforts to address them.
More broadly, an expansion of Harvard’s financial aid program has the potential to make college more affordable for students who struggle under the current system without needlessly subsidizing families that can afford the sticker price. While the realities of the endowment militate against quick action on this front, the ongoing capital campaign aims to raise $600 million dollars for financial aid, a sum that could expand the number of families for whom tuition is negligible.
Ultimately, the cost of college is hardly a trivial issue, and Harvard would do well to work towards slowing the growth of its tuition. But the free tuition proposal of “Free Harvard, Fair Harvard” represents an impractical solution that ignores the reality of the endowment and the potential for growth in the financial program. Harvard should pursue better ideas as it seeks to make college more affordable.
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