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Increasing Financial Aid is Not the Best Way to Make Harvard More Diverse

Harvard in Numbers

By Aden Barton, Contributing Opinion Writer
Aden Barton ’24 is an Economics concentrator in Eliot House. His column “Harvard in Numbers” appears on alternate Mondays.

Harvard mostly educates rich kids.

The average household income of a Harvard student is 168,000 — two-and-a-half times that of the average American household. Only 20 percent of our students come from the bottom 60 percent of the income spectrum.

If you want Harvard to teach more than just the richest Americans and do less to enshrine elite privilege, its student body should be more economically diverse. But discussions of economic diversity focus too much on financial aid (and admissions) when Harvard’s recruitment policies are far more important in improving low-income enrollment.

Harvard’s published tuition right now — including room and board — stands at $74,528, nearly double that of the average four-year private college.

People cite this $75,000 “sticker price” as evidence that Harvard costs too much, but usually only rich students pay full tuition. The average price charged for a student— meaning the price paid after financial aid and grants — is $18,037, one-fourth of the published number.

In comparison, the average tuition charged for a four-year private college is $32,720, meaning Harvard is actually much cheaper than most comparable schools. That’s still a ton of money, especially for low-income students.

But that’s the average price charged. With Harvard’s recent expansion of financial aid, students whose parents make less than $75,000 will “be expected to contribute nothing” in tuition, meaning 55 percent of the United States could attend Harvard for free. Indeed, research finds that elite institutions like Harvard provide such generous aid that they’re cheaper than any other type of school, including less selective schools or two year options.

Given that the bottom 55 percent of households can now attend Harvard for free and that our school is much cheaper for low-income students than any other type of institution, increasing financial aid will have little impact on socioeconomic diversity.

This conclusion is confirmed by empirical evidence. A study of Harvard’s 2005 increase in financial aid found initial positive effects in low-income enrollment but concluded that Harvard, going forward, would need to rely on measures beyond financial aid. Indeed, the share of students whose parents were in the bottom 60 percent increased after the 2005 initiative but eventually regressed to earlier levels, suggesting the need for non-aid approaches.

In addition, low-income students, if admitted to Harvard, are more likely than any other income brackets to enroll, according to the aforementioned study of Harvard’s 2005 increase in financial aid. If financial aid were a barrier to low-income enrollment, we’d expect low-income students to turn down acceptance more often than their richer peers.

What other options exist? One solution is increasing outreach to low-income students.

Most qualified low-income students don’t even apply to selective colleges despite the fact that those who do enroll have very high graduation rates and earnings outcomes. Moreover, research shows that targeted outreach to these high-achieving, low-income students is both cost-effective and impactful.

Given that exorbitant sticker prices deter students who could attend college for free, Harvard could — both individually and in conjunction with other schools — advertise how cheap selective colleges are for low-income students. Specifically, Harvard should increase outreach to non-elite high schools and community colleges and expand high school summer programs for prospective low-income students.

There’s also the question of admission policies. It’s easy to say that Harvard needs to admit more low-income students. This may get you part of the way towards remedying the socioeconomic gap, as I’m sure there are low-income students Harvard almost accepted — but didn’t — who would do well academically, given that those low-income applicants who are accepted tend to disproportionately succeed.

However, most of the problem lies in low-income students who never apply — not Harvard rejecting qualified low-income applicants. Only 4.6 percent of applicants of the Class of 2008 had a family income less than $40,000, meaning the available pool of low-income students is small to begin with. So, simply calling on Harvard to admit more low-income students probably isn’t sufficient, by itself.

Given that admitted low-income students have very high graduation outcomes, Harvard could recruit and subsequently accept more low-income students without having to lower its admission standards at all while simultaneously providing huge benefits of heightened income mobility and greater campus socioeconomic diversity.

And to be clear, I’m still in favor of increasing financial aid, as I’m not really sure what the drawback is. I just don’t think it’ll have a big impact in terms of low-income enrollment. And, if we’re deciding between spending a million dollars on financial aid or on low-income student recruitment, I’d definitely opt for the latter.

We should not pretend that Harvard is a socioeconomic equalizer. Instead, we should recognize that Harvard mostly admits rich kids who proceed to make a lot of money and that increasing financial aid won’t do a lot to change that. The solution lies mostly in greater low-income student recruitment.

Aden Barton ’24 is an Economics concentrator in Eliot House. His column “Harvard in Numbers” appears on alternate Mondays.

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