Harvard Doing More for Middle-Income Students

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Harvard University announced yesterday a series of breaks for middle-income students, increasing financial aid enough to effectively slash costs by as much as 50 percent and eliminating required student loans.

The changes, which will take place next fall, are part of a growing national movement to combat the rapidly rising cost of higher education, and to ensure that elite universities don't shut out all but the wealthiest students. Tuition at many private colleges and universities has risen so much in recent decades that even families earning close to $200,000 a year can struggle to afford it.

Under the plan announced by Drew Faust, president of the university, families earning more than $60,000 will be expected to pay a small percentage of their annual income for tuition and room and board, rising to 10 percent for those earning between $120,000 and $180,000 a year.

That makes the cost for many families -- no more than $18,000 a year -- comparable to that of public flagship universities, school officials said.

Faust said Harvard will no longer consider the equity in a family's home when calculating whether it qualifies for financial aid. It will consider other factors such as family size, unusual health-care costs or assets. All families that qualify for financial aid will receive that aid in grants, rather than being required to take out loans.

Presently, parents in families earning $60,000 or less are not required to pay anything.

According to university officials, grants to students will rise more than 20 percent, from $98 million to about $120 million next year -- and perhaps far more in the future, as more students from disadvantaged backgrounds consider Harvard a possibility.

"This is a huge investment for Harvard," Faust said, "but there is no more important commitment that we could make."

Harvard's announcement will likely have a ripple effect at private colleges and universities, and some observers expect it to spur some schools, especially those with large endowments, to follow its lead.

"I think it'll have quite a substantial impact," said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education. "Elite colleges and universities are in continual competition with each other for the best students, faculty members, administrators, foundation grants -- you name it, they compete for everything. When Harvard has taken such a dramatic step to help families finance higher education, other institutions will certainly follow suit. This is probably an indication of what's to come.''

Over the past several years, a cluster of top universities have announced dramatic new aid for their poorest students, in some cases covering the cost entirely. In 2004, Harvard promised that families earning less than $40,000 a year wouldn't have to pay at all; schools including the University of Virginia and the College of William & Mary followed. That income level has since risen to $60,000 at Harvard. On Saturday, Duke University announced that starting next fall it will no longer expect parents in families earning $60,000 or less to help pay for their children's education.

Several years ago, Princeton University eliminated all loan requirements from financial aid packages so that their students would graduate without enormous debt burdens. Williams College made a similar commitment last month. In 2006 Harvard, Princeton and Virginia eliminated early-decision admissions programs because they believed they gave an advantage to more privileged students.

The moves are intended to correct a growing imbalance in the student population at elite schools, which have been getting increasingly expensive -- the annual cost of attending Harvard is now more than $45,000 -- and shutting out students who, even with aid, cannot afford it.

According to William Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid at the university's Harvard College recent surveys found that the school was attracting the top students from either end of the economic spectrum, but not the middle. "The word on the street was, if you're rich or you're poor, perhaps you could end up going to a place like Harvard. But for a lot of Americans, forget about it. You couldn't possibly do it."

That does happen, said Michael Blackman of Upper Marlboro, who works for the postal service. "I'm worried about the cost of tuition," he said. With a son who is a senior in high school, he said he knows that some people rule out the Ivy League and other private schools because of the expense.

In recent years, said Sally Donahue, director of financial aid at Harvard College, parents have been voicing more distress about financial aid packages, including people wondering if they were going to have to sell their homes.

Schools have gotten so expensive that some members of Congress have been asking why schools with fat endowments -- Harvard being an obvious target -- don't lower tuition. More than 60 schools have endowments exceeding $1 billion.

Faust said Harvard is examining tuition levels and aid to graduate and professional schools. Harvard will be taking advantage of strong returns on its endowment to help pay for the initiatives announced yesterday, along with a variety of other sources of funding, she added.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company