Too Costly for Even the Well-to-Do

December 26, 2007

December 19, 2007; New York Times (editorial): The new standards will make the cost of a Harvard education comparable to the charges at the nation's leading public universities.

Harvard's new financial aid policy is the boldest move yet to mitigate the soaring costs of a college education. Most previous efforts to make higher education affordable have focused, as they should, on helping low-income students. Now Harvard will also provide generous aid to students whose annual family incomes reach as high as $180,000. It is a welcome move, but also a disturbing admission that the priciest colleges are now beyond the reach of even many upper-middle-class families.

The cost of attending college has been rising faster than inflation and faster than family incomes, prompting anguished outcries from consumers and calls in Congress for colleges to rein in their costs or disgorge more of their endowments. Some of the most expensive schools have responded with new aid programs. Princeton, in a move emulated by others, shifted to grants from loans, easing the debt burden on students, and removed home equity from financial aid calculations. Harvard's new policy also includes these provisions.

Harvard currently provides a free undergraduate education to students from families earning up to $60,000 a year. Under its new plan, families earning between $120,000 and $180,000 a year would pay only 10 percent of their incomes for tuition and fees on an education that is currently priced at more than $45,000 a year. More than 90 percent of American families would be eligible for aid, Harvard officials estimate.

The new standards will make the cost of a Harvard education comparable to the charges at the nation's leading public universities. The new approach should allow more students to engage in unpaid research, unpaid summer internships and study abroad. Students who graduate with little or no debt could more readily pursue low-paying careers in public service.

Although Harvard is often a trendsetter, it is not clear that many other schools can afford to follow. Its endowment of $35 billion is the largest of any university. Most other colleges rely heavily on tuition and fees and can't readily give up that income. There are more than 60 colleges that have endowments that exceed $1 billion that ought to move at least partially in the same direction.

Students attending public colleges have also faced steep cost increases, in part because state governments have become stingier in providing support. Governors and legislators ought to be ashamed if their flagship public universities charge more than a high-priced private school like Harvard.