In case there were any lingering doubt about the relative merits of financial aid policies among the top three private universities in the country (“Financial aid policies defy easy rankings” 11/1: “If a student just wanted to pick a college by which school had the best financial aid, I’m not sure they could do that,” [Caesar] Storlazzi said. “I’m not sure I could do that either.”), Harvard’s bombshell on Monday utterly obliterated those ambiguities.
With one flick of the wrist, Harvard catapulted itself into at least a tie for first place with Princeton and further opened the already formidable gap between itself and Yale in terms of financial aid policies. With these changes, Harvard has once again demonstrated its underlying philosophical differences with Yale about the role of the private Ivy League university in combating unequal access to private education.
Whether intentionally directed at Yale or not, Harvard’s changes hit our university, in my opinion, in the three most blatantly weak areas. First of all, Harvard has completely eliminated its assumption that students will take out loans in order to cover the costs of their summer income contribution and their term-time self-help contribution. This change brings Harvard perfectly in line with the policy that Princeton established several years ago, while further highlighting the insufficiencies of Yale’s policies. (As of 2006, the average Yale student graduates with approximately $13,000 in loan debt).
Second, Harvard has wiped away its assumption that families should take out home equity loans in order to cover the cost of higher education (once again consistent with policies implemented by Princeton several years ago). The 568 Group, a union of 28 of the most elite private universities in the United States, suggests that universities include home equity in asset calculation up to 1.2 times the amount of the family’s income. Yale is a member of this group, while Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford are not, allowing them certain freedoms in their determination of need.
Finally, in its most drastic and symbolic move, Harvard has recognized the disproportionate burden of financial aid policies on middle-income students. Since Harvard and Yale announced several years ago that they would eliminate parental contributions from families earning under $60,000 and $45,000, respectively, middle- and upper-middle-income families have been under the most pressure, often tapping into $50,000 home equity loans in order to cover college tuition. Harvard has just announced a simple, sensible policy that will set parental contribution at about 10 percent of household income for families earning less than $180,000, while preserving the zero parental contribution for families earning less than $60,000.
Harvard is the first university to institutionally recognize this undue burden on middle-class families, and it is with this move that it seems to have overtaken even Princeton.
One of the most radical changes in this policy — and one that I anticipate will not be fully appreciated by the media — is its simplicity. Parents of middle-income students applying to Harvard now have a general rule-of-thumb to use in planning ahead for tuition costs. As the Yale financial aid administration has frequently noted, financial aid calculations are bogged down by esoteric contingencies, with about 150 different variables entering into the picture for any given determination of need.
Harvard seems to erase all of that. In my experience, Yale’s packages are particularly hard to decipher for students when it comes down to figuring out how much to write a check for, much less how the institution arrived at its number. Harvard’s move is a less tangible benefit in the larger framework of this shift, but an extremely significant one nonetheless in dissolving the veil of incomprehensibility that leads to so much stress for students on financial aid.
In meeting or even exceeding the standard that Princeton set, Harvard has really put Yale between a rock and a hard place. Before Monday, Princeton had been a sort of lone wolf in the financial aid landscape. An “anomaly,” as President Levin once said. Before Monday, Yale could prop up its pretenses about having a financial aid program comparable to Harvard’s.
Now, of the schools commonly acknowledged as the top three private research universities in the United States, two have enacted radically proactive policies while one remains obstinately satisfied with the status quo. One has the sense that, now, Harvard and Princeton are jockeying for position, neck and neck for first and second, while Yale lags by a solid two or three lengths in third.
When Princeton was the only clear frontrunner on financial aid, the Yale administration, in my opinion, refrained from radically restructuring financial aid because Princeton was a manageable threat. Among low-income applicants, Princeton is still widely perceived as an institution mired in old money. Yale had a quantifiable competitive advantage stealing cross-admits away from Princeton because of the perception of Yale as more tolerant of ethnic minority, homosexual and low-income students. To a large extent, these generalizations about the schools have insulated Yale against a powerful recruiting threat from down south.
I doubt that I was the only person at this university to see through the Yale Corporation’s all-too-coincidental decision just this “last weekend” to enact a major financial aid initiative. As President Levin has noted in justifying his relationship with China and specifically President Hu Jintao, private universities in the United States have enough money and enough political clout to turn the tides of an entire nation.
Likewise, Yale has the financial and political power to actively combat unequal access to education in the United States. Harvard and Princeton have recognized their societal sway, and have proactively set intentions on disturbing class hierarchies.
Yet, the Yale administration — and I extend this criticism especially to President Levin himself — has repeatedly proven that it will act on financial aid only when necessary to keep up with the Ivy League Joneses. When President Levin graces us with the details of his major financial aid initiative, I can only hope that, in doing so, his heart is in the right place.
Andrew Williamson is a junior in Ezra Stiles College.