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Yes, you heard me right: Let’s make tuition $1 million dollars. This probably seems radical at first, but hear me out. Harvard is infamous for its already exorbitant cost of attendance, which climbs ever higher each fall. This year, students living on campus were asked to shell out a total of $74,528. Harvard also has a remarkably generous system of need-based financial aid, one which would enable most potential applicants to study here tuition-free. Families with an annual income less than $65,000 — for context, median family income in the United States sits right above this cut-off — are typically asked to pay nothing, making the actual average cost of attendance at Harvard a much more reasonable $12,000 per year.
On its financial aid webpage, Harvard claims that families “with incomes above $150,000 will be asked to pay proportionately more than 10 percent [of their income] based on their circumstances.” As there are certainly families at Harvard with annual incomes greater than $10 million, a statement like this would lead you to think that some students are already paying $1 million. In reality, some high-income families will spend quite a bit more than 10 percent of their income on tuition, and others will pay significantly less than 10 percent. Take, for example, two nearly identical families distinguished from one another solely by their income. One has an income of $350,000 and the other an income of $700,000. Harvard’s net price calculator offers no financial aid to either family, meaning that the first will send around 22.3 percent of their pre-tax income to Harvard, and the second will send only around 11.2 percent.
In the United States, where only roughly one-in-six families have incomes above $150,000, and even fewer have incomes large enough to disqualify them from financial aid at Harvard entirely, perhaps this wouldn’t present a problem. But at Harvard, where roughly 40 percent of students in the Class of 2024 do not receive financial aid, and nearly 30 percent of families have incomes greater than $250,000, a substantial amount of the class could afford to pay much more than $70,000 a year. In fact, a substantial amount of the freshman class, which resembles many before it, could do so while still paying a reasonably low percentage of their annual income to the university.
At the heart of need-based financial aid is a promise of equity: Everyone who can get into Harvard should be able to afford Harvard, too. The simple solution to the problem of the upper-middle-class family struggling to pay Harvard’s full tuition is to make our financial aid system more robust and cover their costs.
Where should that money come from? Well, it only seems fair to me that it comes from families who are paying an unfairly low percentage of their income to the University. There are a variety of ways to increase revenue by pulling more money from the top — for example, Harvard could pursue donations from wealthy families more aggressively — but it seems the simplest and most ethical is to raise tuition significantly. Financial aid will increase as well, as the College’s increased revenue will be funneled back into the program.
Those of you who are already thinking that $1 million is too much might be surprised when I tell you that I actually don’t think it’s enough. To fulfill a promise of equity, a tuition that works much more like a progressive tax is in order; the only limiting factor on tuition should be the income of the wealthiest Harvard family. One may argue that the pricing of most goods does not function this way, but that misses how essential a college education is to success for most Americans, relative to other goods.
The extra revenue from charging truly proportional tuition could change lives here: It would ensure that Harvard is a financial possibility for any student anywhere; it would send a message that Harvard is finally truly, fundamentally committed to equity; and most of all, it would enable the financial aid office to expand its programs for low-income students significantly.
Last summer, I was deeply disappointed to read the New York Times’s upsetting article about the College’s failure to support its low-income students during the pandemic. More recently, The Crimson’s own editorial board has discussed how the College’s decentralized aid systems perpetuate inequality on campus. Implicit in Harvard’s non-response to these students’ concerns is the supposed financial precariousness of offering such generous aid at this time. So why not eliminate the precariousness? Why not make tuition $1 million?
Joel Sabando ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Lowell House.
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