This week, Harvard President Lawrence Summers unveiled Harvard’s new comprehensive financial aid plan, which includes a creative $14 million commitment to encouraging careers in public service. The Presidential Scholars Program — a plan that is innovative but not flawless — will provide between 200 and 300 grants over the next three years to high-achieving students interested in low-paying jobs after graduation. If successful, it also will provide a critical incentive for some of higher education’s best minds to go into public service.
Harvard’s complete financial aid plan, which also includes a new loan program for everyone but undergraduates, might seem to be just the latest instance of one-upmanship in a semiannual Harvard-Yale-Princeton competition for graduate and professional students. Every year, each school seems to try to woo top candidates by tinkering with stipends or upping financial aid packages.
But Harvard’s targeted support program makes a statement to more than just prospective students. It is the same declaration of support for public service that Yale has long made subtly through tradition and reputation. And it is one Yale administrators should consider re-emphasizing this year through financial aid changes more democratic than Harvard’s.
According to Harvard’s plan, top students from eight of Harvard’s graduate and professional schools — the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the Kennedy School of Government, the Graduate School of Education, the School of Public Health, the Medical School, the Dental School, the Divinity School and the School of Design — are eligible to become Presidential Scholars.
While undoubtedly beneficial to the roughly 75 students who receive grants each year, the program might cause hard feelings among those not-quite-top Harvard students still interested in public service, some at Yale have sensitively pointed out. New Yale Graduate School Dean Peter Salovey has commendably said Yale is committed to keeping pace with peer institutions but would favor characteristic across-the-board aid increases over Harvard-style selectivity. Unlike at Harvard, all of Yale’s graduate students currently receive $15,000 annual stipends.
Nevertheless, administrators should not rule out broad increases in support for those particularly interested in civic service. Harvard’s new plan bars business and law students from applying for grants because special relief programs already exist in some of the university’s professional schools. At the Yale Law School and the School of Management, too, students who take public service jobs are granted reprieve from some or all of their school loans. But loan remission frequently requires long-term commitment to low-paying jobs and often falls short of students’ needs.
“Yale’s commitment to public service is old and deep,” Law School Dean Anthony Kronman told the News earlier this year. The number of law students who go into public service, for example — while only 7 percent of last year’s graduating class — has always been a point of pride for Yale. By increasing grant money for all graduate and professional students interested in service, including law and business students, the University will reaffirm its culture and practice of promoting work in the public sphere.