January 18, 2008

Harvard plan raises financial aid questions

Harvard University’s recent boost to its financial aid program has college and university officials nationwide worried about a potential increase in the gap between middle- and lower-income students in higher education.

Last month Harvard unveiled a new aid policy that reduces the expected contribution for students with family incomes between $120,000 and $180,000. The initiative will make Harvard’s tuition more affordable for its upper–middle class students by replacing loans with grant money. Students in this income bracket will contribute only 10 percent of their family’s yearly income.

Michael Behnke, vice president and dean of College enrollment, said it is unclear whether or not Harvard’s move will make affording a top-tier education less accessible for students in the lowest income brackets, as has been the concern of some financial aid experts.

“It’s too early to tell,” he said in an interview. “Some observers have said that by extending the definition of middle class to such high-income ranges, Harvard has blurred the distinction between need-based and merit aid. These observers and others think that this will lead to more merit aid for high-ability, high-income students and less for lower income students…. Many places already do not meet the full need of low-income students.”

Alicia Reyes, the director of financial aid at the University, noted that increasing financial aid is especially difficult at the U of C, a school with a smaller endowment than Harvard and Yale.

Harvard’s decision follows what was considered by many a banner year for financial aid at the U of C, after an anonymous donor gave $100 million to the University last spring. The Odyssey scholarship, which will begin in the 2008-2009 academic year, will replace loans with grants for students with family incomes less than $60,000 and replace up to half of the loans with grants for students with family incomes less than $75,000.

The University of Chicago is trying to raise an additional $300 million to add to its financial aid program in the College. The money will go toward endowing the Odyssey program.

While the U of C cannot immediately add to its financial aid program to the extent that Harvard has, endowing the Odyssey scholarship could provide flexibility in aid spending in the future, Behnke said.

“Given that the median family income in the USA is around $50,000, our new Odyssey scholarship program…does reach into what most people consider the middle class,” Behnke said in an e-mail interview.

Behnke added that in recent years the University has reevaluated its criteria for determining financial need. The University now deemphasizes home equity when considering a student’s family assets. The changes also strive to keep work study and loan expectations at their current levels, despite recent tuition increases.

In light of Harvard’s announcement, schools nationwide have felt increasing pressure to maintain their competitive edge by increasing aid. Harvard’s $35-billion endowment is the largest in the country, and several similarly well endowed schools have announced lucrative aid proposals in response to Harvard’s decision. The University of Pennsylvania is eliminating loans from its aid package, and on January 7 Yale unveiled plans to increase yearly spending on its financial aid by 40 percent.