Campus & Community

Affordable Harvard: A year of financial aid initiatives

4 min read

Last November, Louis McAlister sat in the back of a motel ballroom in Bluefield, W.Va., working on his laptop. His daughter Antoinette was several rows ahead, listening to a presentation by William R. Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions for Harvard College.

Outside, dusk settled over State Route 19, which cuts through steep wooded hills and past rail yards heaped with deep black mounds of coal.

“Oh, yes sir,” whispered McAlister, having a child enrolled at Harvard would be good. But he added a worried caveat before dipping his head back to the keyboard: “It’s the finances.”

Fitzsimmons, a one-time Harvard hockey goalie whose father ran a gas station, cut the Bluefield air with his broad Boston accent. For some undergraduates, he said — those whose families make $60,000 or less — a Harvard education is virtually free.

McAlister looked up.

Harvard took to the road last year, on many fronts, with a universal message: that Harvard was affordable and that it was interested in students who could give the University economic diversity.

Better financial aid was a theme that resonated throughout 2007-08.

In December, Harvard College announced a sweeping three-point financial aid incentive taking effect this fall.

Families with incomes of $60,000 or less will pay nothing; those with incomes up to $120,000 will pay on a sliding scale topping out at 10 percent; and those families making up to $180,000 will pay an average of 10 percent of income for undergraduate education. (About 70 percent of current Harvard undergraduates already get some kind of financial aid.)

Students will also no longer have to take out loans, which will be replaced by grants — a guarantee that students starting with the Class of 2012 will graduate debt-free. And Harvard will no longer use home equity to calculate income levels for aid.

“We want all students who might dream of a Harvard education to know that it is a realistic and affordable option,” said Harvard University President Drew Faust in December. “Education is fundamental to the future of individuals and the nation, and we are determined to do our part to restore its place as an engine of opportunity, rather than a source of financial stress.”

Other Schools took similar steps, adding to the University’s new wave of financial aid incentives.

Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD) announced in October 2007 that for the first time international master’s degree students will get the same financial aid as their American counterparts. The plan, which starts in September 2008, affects about 60 students a year from foreign countries — 30 percent of the GSD student body.

In mid-March 2008, Harvard Law School (HLS) announced that starting in the fall it will waive tuition for third-year students who pledge to spend five years practicing law either for the government or for nonprofit institutions. That would save those students more than $40,000, the cost of a single year at HLS.

“We know that debt is a big issue,” HLS Dean Elena Kagan told The New York Times in March. “We have tried to address that over the years with a very generous loan forgiveness program, but we started to think we could do better.”

Six-figure debt loads are not unusual for graduates of American law schools — a financial reality that pushes new-minted lawyers away from careers in public service.

Since 1978, HLS’s Low Income Protection Plan (LIPP) has reduced or eliminated debt for graduates who are struggling in lower-paying occupations, including jobs as district and state’s attorneys. LIPP is the oldest program of its kind in the country, and was expanded in 1987 and 2000.

HLS has also had the Heyman Fellowship Program in place since 2000. It provides mentorship, grants, and loan forgiveness for recent HLS graduates who choose to work for the federal government.

Also in March, Harvard Medical School (HMS) announced that starting in September the family contribution will be eliminated for entering students whose parents earn less than $120,000 a year.

At the same time, the aid budget will go up 40 percent — about $3 million — at HMS, which costs about $65,000 a year. The new incentive, intended to lessen student debt and guide more just-graduated doctors into primary care, will benefit about a third of HMS’s 700 students.

At the same time, HMS will stop calculating financial aid by taking into account any money that contributing families set aside for retirement.

“Part of my job,” said HMS Dean Jeffrey S. Flier in an interview last year, “is to … reduce the burden of debt on our graduates.”

That idea has the power of the whole University behind it. In an interview this year, Faust called increased financial aid a “high priority” and a topic of conversation with deans Harvard-wide.

Financial aid at Harvard College is 60 percent more than it was six years ago, said Fitzsimmons — a sign of the University’s accelerating commitment to affordability.