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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Is Harvard becoming a bargain?

    Harvard University evokes wealth and privilege in a powerful, visceral way that’s unequaled at most American universities, and with good reason – besides it’s affluent student body, the institution itself is sickeningly rich.

    Currently, its endowment stands at an astronomical $34.9 billion, up $5.7 billion from last year alone. In comparison, the UA’s endowment is $467 million – hardly a paltry sum, but enough to inspire an inferiority complex of epic proportions. Harvard’s endowment, thanks to its network of wealthy alumni and brand-name cachet, allows the university to woo star professors, pour millions of dollars into research, and most enviably, expand their financial aid program in ways that state schools can only dream about.

    Elite private universities are more costly than the most prestigious public institutions, but those financial obstacles are somewhat mitigated by the sheer amount of money that private universities are able to funnel into financial aid services. Harvard and several other eminent universities have recently announced that they will expand their financial aid program to include families with incomes of up to $180,000, who would almost definitely be denied financial assistance at a state school.

    Expounding upon the financial woes of a family earning that much per year seems slightly ridiculous – until you do a little bit of math. Even a relatively wealthy family with a $180,000 income would be forced to relinquish 17.5 percent of that income each year for Harvard’s tuition alone. If Harvard has the financial means to make its exorbitant tuition rates more accessible, the school can hardly be faulted for expanding the range of incomes that qualify for aid.

    The trouble is, the vast majority of schools in the United States are not in the same cushy financial position – and attending a public school is not that much less expensive. At the UA, tuition for two semesters for an out-of-state student is $16,281.84, or roughly half of Harvard’s. Nonetheless, for that same $180,000 income family, that still amounts to almost one-tenth of their yearly income, without taking books, housing and food into account.

    Of course, the $180,000-income family certainly wouldn’t qualify for financial aid at the UA, and would be expected to foot the bill out of pocket. Even so, that family would be quite privileged in comparison to many others with students at the UA. With the median family income in Pima County at $44,446, most families who want to send children to a university are at a considerable disadvantage.

    One of the advantages of public higher education is supposed to be that students without the means to attend a private school can still receive a quality education. When state schools increase their tuition, however, but allow their financial aid programs to stagnate it contributes to the increasing cost of a college education in a much more insidious way than the exorbitant fees at private universities. The UA’s vote to increase tuition by several hundred dollars per semester at the end of last year is just another example of climbing costs without an accompanying safety net. How much longer will students have to wait before a public education becomes less of a bargain than a bachelor’s degree from an Ivy League school? Worse yet, how much longer will students have to wait until a bachelor’s degree is as out of reach for the vast majority as a Maserati?

    With an impending budget crisis in our state, the financial future of all public schools in Arizona is uncertain. Other schools are already suffering from a shortage of funds, and the results aren’t pretty. At the University of California at Berkeley, budget cuts have university officials worried about maintaining the university’s reputation for excellence. Berkeley’s endowment is a sizable $3 billion, but that money funds a school much larger than Harvard – and in the end Berkeley’s fate is still inextricably tied to California’s state budget.

    The hand-wringing over the vast differences in educational endowments is valid, to a certain extent. Harvard isn’t exactly a bastion of equality, but it at least partially compensates for its high cost with generous financial aid. In comparison, state schools with rising tuition costs can’t promise their students the same kind of help with paying for school, and given their sensitivity to the state’s economy, can’t always mitigate the increase in fees with a corresponding influx of student resources.

    The UA needs to stay solvent, and if the way to do that is by increasing tuition, that’s fair enough. Each tuition increase, however, should be accompanied by an assurance of increased quality and a thorough explanation of the ways the extra revenue will be used to benefit students, as well as either a promise to expand financial aid using part of those funds or a thorough explanation of why that is not feasible at the time. Right now, raising tuition feels like a punishment for intellectual curiosity, and if the increases continue to be levied in the same vaguely punishing way they are now, schools may bleed their students dry enough that they decide not to attend at all. State universities need to keep themselves afloat given their tightening state budgets and the national economic downturn, but not at the expense of students’ ability to seek and receive a quality education that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg.

    Sarah Devlin is a sophomore majoring in English and political science. She can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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