College & Workforce Readiness

Harvard Reduces Financial Burden For Needy Families

By Sean Cavanagh — March 10, 2004 2 min read

Harvard University will eliminate the required contribution of parents with household incomes of less than $40,000, in one of the highest-profile steps taken to date by a college seeking to ease the financial burden on needy students.

The plan was one of a number of moves Harvard unveiled on March 1 aimed at recruiting more disadvantaged students and helping them during their time in college.

Today, the average parental contribution for families with annual incomes below $40,000 with children attending Harvard is $2,300. By covering such costs through grants, the university will reduce that amount to zero under its plan. In addition, families with incomes at $60,000 or below will see their required yearly contributions fall by about $1,250 annually.

The Cambridge, Mass., institution, which has an estimated $19.3 billion endowment, has set aside $2 million in financial-aid funding for the initiative, which university officials estimate will benefit more than 1,000 families and take effect with the fall 2004 entering class.

Currently, Harvard undergraduates receiving grant aid from the university are expected to meet a “self-help” requirement of $3,500 per school year, an amount they can raise through work- study, scholarships, or loans. That requirement will remain in place, but school officials believe reducing the parental contribution will ease families’ financial burden and cut postgraduation debt, said Sally C. Donahue, who is the director of financial aid for Harvard College, which enrolls the university’s undergraduates.

In addition to the parental-aid initiative, Harvard officials pledged to retool their admissions policy to make sure they are giving strong consideration to applicants who are disadvantaged economically or in their school environments. They also vow to intensify their plans to recruit students from a broader range of high schools nationwide. Harvard has 6,600 undergraduates.

Efforts Elsewhere

Last year, the public University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill launched a plan that will give freshmen from qualified low-income families enough financial aid to finish college free of debt. (“Rising College Costs Spark Responses,” Oct. 22, 2003.)

Meanwhile, the University of Virginia, also a state school, has announced an initiative that will replace loans for needy and middle-income students with grants, in an effort to increase access and relieve future debt.

Harvard’s initiative was already being planned when UNC-Chapel Hill’s plan was announced, Ms. Donahue said.

For 2003-04, Harvard’s tuition is $26,066. Next academic year, the total cost, with fees, room, and board, is expected to be $40,450, Ms. Donahue said. Two-thirds of all undergraduates at the school receive some form of financial aid, including scholarships, loans, and work- study.

Tom Mortenson, an independent consultant on higher education policy, credited Harvard for its proposal. But he said the initiative, and similar ones at other private and public institutions, would have minimal impact until those schools recruited students from poor families in greater numbers.

“Any way you cut the K-12 pipeline, there’s a growing number of college-bound students coming from low-income families,” said Mr. Mortenson, who is based in Oskaloosa, Iowa. “But we see our elite institutions serving a shrinking segment of that population.”

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