Monday was not a fun day to be a senior administrator at Yale.
In recent weeks, University officials quietly indicated that Yale was likely to unveil significant financial-aid reforms at some point this winter, although it was unclear when, exactly, the reforms would be announced and how momentous they would be. For the first time in recent memory, Yale appeared ready to seize the spotlight with a financial-aid announcement — timed “for competitive reasons,” Director of Student Financial Services Caesar Storlazzi told the News last month — that did not merely come in response to another school’s headline-grabbing move.
Then, with Yale’s early-action decisions almost in the mail and Harvard’s regular-decision deadline only weeks away, Harvard invited reporters to a conference call with President Drew Gilpin Faust on Monday. By mid-afternoon, the front page of The New York Times’ Web site declared: “Harvard Steps Up Financial Aid.”
Harvard ruined everything — even if University President Richard Levin refused to say as much.
“The fact that Harvard went first is … a coincidence,” Levin said in an interview several hours after Monday’s announcement. “We had no idea they wanted to move.”
In the Office of Undergraduate Admissions on Monday, “there were a lot of glum faces,” someone familiar with the office said on the condition that he not be named.
“People’s emotions get involved,” the person said. Admissions officers, he said, “were just so excited to announce this in January … to bring them back to the top of the game. I think this just took the wind out from under their sails.”
Harvard had once again stolen Yale’s thunder, garnering headlines with a financial-aid initiative for the second time in three years and all but forcing Yale to respond.
But on Tuesday morning, Harvard was on the front page of The Times, and Yale was left with little to do but tell students to wait until January. Levin said he had not planned to disclose the January announcement in advance until Harvard’s revelation on Monday.
Levin, the longest-serving president in the Ivy League, has been praised in the media as an innovator in his tenure at Yale, embracing sustainability and leading the charge toward turning Yale into a world university by increasing interactions with institutions and governments around the globe and recruiting more international students. But even though Yale has grown its endowment 300 percent over the last decade and seen its acceptance rate decline steadily, doubts about the University’s commitment to financial-aid reform have dogged Levin’s administration in recent years.
Those doubts came to a head in February 2005, when 15 students staged an all-day sit-in at the Office of Undergraduate Admissions to protest what they called the Yale administration’s poor attitude about making significant financial-aid reforms. Yale made The Times, at least — but not exactly for a good reason.
Still, administrators are not merely saving face in promising a financial-aid announcement next semester — the News reported last week that such an announcement was in the works. But it has not always been that way.
The sit-in was only one episode in a several-year-long saga that featured announcements of high-profile financial-aid initiatives at other schools and ensuing calls from student activists for Yale to respond with gusto.
In 2001, Princeton University eliminated all loans from its financial-aid packages, enabling students to graduate virtually debt-free. Yale has never followed suit.
Then, in 2004, Harvard made headlines when it eliminated tuition for students from families earning less than $40,000. A year later, Yale eliminated the parental contribution for families making under $45,000 per year, only to be followed by Harvard’s decision the next year to do away with any required contribution for families making less than $60,000.
Even before Harvard’s announcement, Levin found himself under fire for not acting quickly enough on further financial-aid reform. At a series of University-sponsored open forums this fall that focused on the proposal to build two new residential colleges, students wondered aloud how the University could justify spending close to $600 million on a construction project while students still were dissatisfied with Yale’s aid offerings.
In the long run, Harvard’s beating Yale to the punch probably will not hurt the University too severely, nor will it have that significant an effect on the composition of next year’s freshman class, said Bob Johnson, a marketing consultant who specializes in higher education. But from a public-relations perspective, it must have been hard to swallow, he said.
“I’d be disappointed as hell,” Johnson said. “I’d be pounding the desk, and I’d be muttering and cursing. Timing is everything, and Harvard got a scoop on it.”