Harvard’s Helping Hand

The Times published an article today about Harvard spending more of it’s endowment to help upper-middle class students afford it’s tuition. So the deal is that if your parents make between $120K – $180K, then the expected family contribution is only 10% of that gross amount.

I mentioned this to my husband, and he said “Is Harvard having trouble getting students?” and I said, “No, I was thinking the same thing.” And I’m questioning, “Were people who make that much money a year turning down Harvard even without this program?” Some comments made in the article give that impression:

“The bottom line is that you want the best and the brightest from all economic backgrounds to apply to a place like Harvard,” [comments Mr. Richard Kahlenberg, who is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a nonprofit public policy group and has written extensively about income inequality and higher education.]

Question #1: Were the best and brightest upper-income kids not applying to Harvard before this?

What I really think is going on is indicated in the next part of his comment: “It’s important to take care of the middle class because you don’t want a backlash against programs for low-income students.”

Excuse me? I thought the middle class was not against class-based affirmative action policies? Isn’t this the whole argument about class versus race – help all kids who can’t afford to go to Harvard actually be able to go to Harvard? We are kinda okay with racial inequality but not with income inequality, right? I agree with him – that is the main issue behind the policies. But what is the justification for backlash?

Ok, tuition rates are out of control, especially at state institutions where you pay taxes for the first 18 years of your kid’s life and then can’t send him to the college down the street? Yes, pretty ridiculous. Nevertheless, kids of parents who make $120-$180K a year have so many more options open to them than low-income kids that this tit-for-tat matching just does not make sense. To go to my Ivy-League alma mater, I had to get a full scholarship or I wasn’t going. That’s it, nothing more to say, no discussion to be had. First, there is a limit on how much federal aid an undergrad can take out, which only gets to something like $5,500 for the senior year. The rest, if you have to borrow, has to be on your parent’s back for the most part, as far as creditworthiness goes. For many low-income people, it’s just not an option. My parents don’t own their home – they don’t really have anything to borrow against. Furthermore, although my parent’s probably think differently now, considering that neither had gone to college in a traditional manner*, they just did not see the value in putting $30K a year out there like that, when a perfectly good $5000 a year college was right down the street. Despite the fact that so many low-income people are in it, DEBT is like a four-letter word.

Now upper-middle-income people have a totally different story. Ability to borrow increases with income. Most high income people would be able to afford higher tuition rates because they are able to borrow against assets that low-income people just don’t have. They also know the rules of the game better – many times, they’ve set aside money to pay for college only to hide it when it comes to reporting it to the schools and government. I’ve seen it happen. They are able to get better deals on private loans because they likely have relationships with banks and lenders.

Not that there are not exceptions – of course there are. But I think schools like Harvard should evaluate the high income cases on case-by-case basis. Like if you make $120K a year but you are a single mother with six kids. Then perhaps the policy makes sense. But if you make $150K and have just one kid, come on – you should have to pay a little more than just 10% of your income.

This is mostly just my gut-reaction. I may change my mind as I think about it more. What do you think?

* My mother finished her bachelor’s in 2001, a master’s in 2003 and is currently working on a doctorate online, all while working full-time for the past 25 years. She was a junior in college when she had me.

6 thoughts on “Harvard’s Helping Hand

  1. Thanks for adding me to your blogroll. I have gotten several visitors because of that. I look forward to checking out your site frequently.



  2. I teach race classes, and the ‘class-based not race-based’ argument is, indeed, quite popular with my students — theoretically. On the other hand, there’s the possibility for the racialization of class-based programs anyway. So long as the benefits are *perceived* as disproportionately benefiting minorities, you’re going to have middle class kids/parents up in arms (think about, for instance, the racialization of welfare, a ‘race-blind’ program). I don’t know if that’s what Mr. Kahlenberg had in mind, but it could be.

    Meanwhile, I wonder if it isn’t that upper middle class kids have multiple options when it comes to where to go to college, and thus the competition for this group of students is particularly fierce. Again, you’d think this wouldn’t be a big deal at Harvard, but it may be.

    (Do people choose not to go to Harvard, though? Well, my husband did. He was offered a football scholarship there. He didn’t want to play football anymore, and so he went to Wisconsin. Lucky me 😉 )


  3. Lee – no problem. I figure this whole thing is about reciprocity 🙂 You could have told me I spelled it wrong though. It’s okay, it’s fixed now.

    Carly – what do your students consider “middle-class” to be? I guess I was thinking that making $120 – $180K makes you solidly upper-class. But it could just be me, I don’t know.


  4. I would consider that upper middle-class, although defining class solely by income is always problematic. I think my students think that ‘middle class’ means themselves, largely. But really, those who are likely to object are anybody but the super-rich, I think, so it’s sort of immaterial.

    In terms of who *should* be included in class-based programs, of course, the distinction is very important.


  5. In the UK (where higher education is ridiculously cheap compared to the US), all students have the opportunity to take out a fixed-amount student loan. There’s no collateral needed, and you don’t pay anything back until you’re earning more than £15,000 and then at a rate commensurate with your income. There’s also an extra part of the loan available on a means-tested basis to families below a certain income level. Sounds good, right? The trouble I saw with it, though, was that kids from high-income families would take out the minimum loan, stick it in a high-interest account for the duration of their studies, then pay it all back at once and make a nice little earner off the interest. The rest of us who actually had to live off the money during college still have it hanging over our heads. And the poorest people who got the most money are left with the most to pay back. Of course, the idea is that you get a degree and thus you’ll get a good job and repayments won’t be a problem, but it doesn’t work like that in practice. With so many people getting degrees it’s no longer the mark of success it used to be, and the poorest kids are often put off from going to the top universities (which help distinguish you from the competition) because of the perceptions of elitism (which is not unfair… it’s actually no more expensive to go to Oxford or Cambridge, but 97% of the students are still well-off and white…). Not to mention the fact that so many families are drowning in debt already… and their kids come out of college with more. Another potential source of unfairness is the lack of case-by-case decision making. The means-testing rule is that non-related step-parents’ income is not taken into account. This led to someone I know getting the maximum amount of financial aid, having been declared as having zero parental income (her mother married a rich man and didn’t need to work anymore; her father was willing and able to pay but she didn’t live with him so that was irrelevant).

    All pretty different from Harvard, admittedly, but I think it highlights the flaws of suit-all or “tit-for-tat matching” policies. It may not be politically correct (or maybe it’s too politically correct, I’m not sure), but if there’s funding available I think it’s best off in the hands of those who need it and will use it – the very poor, and also the ‘forgotten’ upper working class/lower middle class kids whose families don’t qualify for any aid but who don’t have a whole lot to spare. If there’s any left over, sure, use it to attract the high-income kids too, but if you’ve got the money I think you should contribute more yourself – that’s the way the rest of the world works.


  6. Char – I totally agree, and thanks for the info on the UK. You know, I read once that Martin Luther Kings family refused financial aid because they could afford it and wanted to pay for his education. Now that I have kids of my own, I’m starting to feel the same way – my children are not in the same situation I was in, and if I can afford to pay for them to go to school, then I will.


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