Harvard Could Pay For Its Students’ Tuition. Why Doesn’t It?

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There’s $38 billion below this building.

The other day, a letter to the editor in the New York Times caught my attention. It was in regards to free tuition at Harvard and the writer, Ron Unz, made this very interesting point:

While it is true that students with family income of $65,000 or less may now attend Harvard tuition free, let’s consider a couple living in New York City with one child, a combined income of more than $180,000 and savings of $100,000. Based on the Harvard net price calculator, they would pay a four-year total cost of $150,000 (including room and board) to send their son or daughter to Harvard.

This seems a severe financial burden to many middle-class and upper-middle-class couples.

Yes, indeed, it does. I can speak from experience. When I went to college, I was not granted financial aid because I was lucky enough to grow up in an upper-middle-class household. Yet even with this financial security, the price of tuition was a huge load for my parents to bear (and now subsequently for me, as I repay my student loans).

“So what,” I can hear you saying. “You got to attend university and in the long run you will come off better for it. Big deal.”

But is that a good outcome for society? Does it make sense for extremely well-endowed universities like Harvard to shift the financial burden of tuition to American families? Consider this:

Totally eliminating tuition at the college would require merely using 4 percent of Harvard’s yearly investment income while still allowing the remaining 96 percent to be reinvested in the financial activities that appear to constitute the primary purpose of the totally tax-exempt $38 billion endowment, now ranking as one of the world’s largest hedge funds.

Harvard, like many universities, is sitting on billions of dollars while asking middle class families and students to take out thousands of dollars in loans. Is that productive? Is that serving the public good? Is that right?

Ultimately, you have to ask yourself: what is the point of tertiary education? Is it to create an endowment of billions of dollars? Or is it to create a more educated, prosperous, and enlightened public?

All around us, one can see market ideology infecting every aspect of our society. As the Harvard professor Michael Sandel points out:

One of the appeals of markets, as a public philosophy, is they seem to spare us the need to engage in public arguments about the meaning of goods. So markets seem to enable us to be non-judgmental about values. But I think that’s a mistake.

I applaud Ron Unz for being judgmental about Harvard’s values. The meaning of education is not to sit on billions of dollars. If I can quote Harvard’s mission statement, “The mission of Harvard College is to educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society.” That is the “truth” – which also happens to be Harvard’s motto.

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Nick Cassella
Nick Cassella graduated from the University of St Andrews in Scotland in 2014. After graduating, he worked on the Initiative 594 campaign before joining Civic Ventures, where he now manages Civic Skunk Works' social media presence.