A year after Yale reformed its financial aid policy to keep pace with its competitors, Harvard University has again pulled ahead of the pack.

Harvard announced Thursday that it would eliminate the parental contribution for students from families with annual incomes below $60,000 and reduce the parental contribution for students from families earning between $60,000 and $80,000 a year.

Yesterday’s announcement follows the release of new financial aid policies by Yale, Stanford University and the University of Pennsylvania in the past year. Yale President Richard Levin has said it is unlikely the University will make further changes to its policy this year, though the administration reviews Yale’s financial aid packages with an eye to the “competitive circumstances” created by recent financial aid reforms at top schools.

Harvard saw success after the 2004 financial aid initiative in which it eliminated the parental contribution for students from families earning under $40,000 and reduced it for families earning between $40,000 and $60,000 per year, and Levin said Thursday’s announcement probably builds on the experience of the past two years. Last March, Yale eliminated the parental contribution for students from families earning under $45,000 and reduced it for families earning between $45,000 and $60,000 per year.

“There’s no doubt that there’s pretty intense competition for the best students and for those families of modest means,” Levin said.

Harvard administrators said they hope the enhanced financial aid package will attract more applications from students from low-income families who would otherwise consider the school too costly. After the 2004 changes, the number of freshmen from affected income brackets grew by 24 percent.

In a statement released from Harvard, outgoing Dean of the Faculty William Kirby said the new initiative will add an additional cost of $2.4 million annually to the financial aid budget, which was projected at about $90 million before the changes announced yesterday.

“Although many students and families might find this hard to believe, Harvard is actually more affordable for many students than public colleges or universities,” Kirby said.

Yale Director of Financial Aid Caesar Storlazzi said Harvard’s new commitment to financial aid is “amazing,” and will likely increase competition between top universities to recruit lower-income students. But he said no other schools can change their aid policies for the coming year since aid awards have been announced to admitted students.

“It’s an extraordinary move and extraordinarily generous on the part of Harvard,” Storlazzi said. “It comes from a great place, … to make a school like Harvard accessible to more and more students.”

This month, Stanford University — where former Yale Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Richard Shaw now directs admissions — and the University of Pennsylvania announced increases in their financial aid packages for low- and middle-income students similar to those enacted by Yale last year.

David Hawkins, director of public policy at the National Association of College Admissions Counselors, said Harvard’s new enhancements to financial aid reflect competition between top-tier universities to attract the best students. Hawkins said he would not be surprised if Harvard’s peers — including Yale — make new financial aid commitments to match or surpass Harvard’s promises. But he said it may take time for institutions to evaluate whether or not their budgets can support huge new financial aid commitments.

“I do know that it’s not an overnight thing,” Hawkins said. “I would assume that an academic year might be a standard sort of time slot, because you can’t change midstream with a group of students.”

Harvard junior Alvin Wong said the new financial aid initiative is an important and worthwhile project for Harvard, especially given the university’s sizeable resources.

“I think that it’s putting students first,” he said.

At Yale, the elimination of the parental contribution for low-income families followed a campaign by the Undergraduate Organizing Committee asking the University to eliminate parental contributions for low-income families and the required student contributions for all students on financial aid.

UOC member Josh Eidelson ’06, who participated in a sit-in inside the Admissions Office, said he thinks Yale still needs to do more to make an undergraduate education at the University more affordable. In particular, he said the University should end the student contribution so that no one has to sacrifice extracurricular activities to earn money.

“Yale needs to work harder to ensure that class doesn’t determine who gets to come to Yale, and that class doesn’t determine what kind of experience students can have while they’re here,” Eidelson said.

Eidelson is a staff columnist for the News.

Yale’s financial aid budget for 2006-07 will reportedly be approximately $59 million, which represents an increase of more than 8 percent from the 2005-06 budget.