Timothy Noah reports:
At the end of 2007, Harvard announced that it would limit tuition to no more than 10 percent of family income for families earning up to $180,000. (It also eliminated all loans, following a trail blazed by Princeton, and stopped including home equity in its calculations of family wealth.) Yale saw and raised to $200,000, and other wealthy colleges weighed in with variations.
Noah argues that this is a bad thing because it encourages other colleges to give tuition breaks to families with six-figure incomes, thus sucking up money that could otherwise go to reduce tuition for lower-income students. For example:
Roger Lehecka, a former dean of students at Columbia, and Andrew Delbanco, director of American studies there, wrote in the New York Times that Harvard’s initiative was “good news for students at Harvard or Yale” but “bad news” for everyone else. “The problem,” they explained, “is that most colleges will feel compelled to follow Harvard and Yale’s lead in price-discounting. Yet few have enough money to give more aid to relatively wealthy students without taking it away from relatively poor ones.”
I don’t follow the reasoning here. Noah also writes that Harvard received “35,000 applications for fewer than 1,700 slots,” so I don’t see why these other schools have to match Harvard at all. Why not just compete for the 33,300 kids who get rejected from Harvard (not to mention those who don’t apply to the big H at all)? Sure, there’s Yale too, but still, there’s something about this story that’s bothering me.
Ultimately, this doesn’t seem like it’s about income at all. I mean, suppose Harvard, Yale, etc., took the big steps of zeroing out their tuitions entirely, so that even Henry Henhouse III could send little Henry IV to Harvard without paying a cent (ok, maybe something for room and board, but really that could be free too, if Harvard wanted to do it that way). Now maybe this wouldn’t be a good move for the university–I’m sure the money would be more effectively spent as a salary increase for the statistics and political science faculty–but let’s not worry about the details. The point is, if Harvard and Yale became free, Noah’s argument would continue to hold. But is it really right to criticize a rich institution for giving things out for free? I’m planning to publish my intro statistics book for free. Does this mean I’m a bad guy because I’m depriving Cambridge University Press the free money that they can use to subsidize worthy but unprofitable books on classical studies? I don’t think so.)
To put it another way, it seems pretty weird to me to say that Harvard has an obligation to keep its tuition high, just to give other colleges a break. If Harvard and Yale want to cut tuition costs, or if MIT wants to stream lectures online for free, that’s good, no?
But I think I’m missing something. At the end of his essay, Noah says he wants college costs to decrease (“surely the answer is to curb the inflation of this commodity’s price”), which seems to contradict his earlier complaints about Harvard and Yale’s tuition-cutting. I’d be interested in hearing from him (and from Lehecka and Delbanco at Columbia) what their ideal Harvard and Yale tuition plans would be. These institutions already charge very little for kids from low-income families, so if you want to cut the cost of tuition, but not to offer discounts for the upper middle class, then what exactly are they recommending? It’s hard for me to imagine they want Harvard to cut tuition for rich kids, but that seems like the only option left. I’m confused.