Wow! This is fabulous news:
Aiming to get more low-income students to enroll, Harvard will stop asking parents who earn less than $40,000 to make any contribution toward the cost of their children's education. Harvard will also reduce the amount it seeks from parents with incomes between $40,000 and $60,000.
"When only 10 percent of the students in elite higher education come from families in the lower half of the income distribution, we are not doing enough," said Lawrence H. Summers, president of Harvard, who will announce the financial aid changes at a meeting of the American Council on Education in Miami Beach today.
I've never been sure where I fit into the class system. Once upon a time my grandparents bought a house in snooty Weatherwood; my grandfather went to college, as did my grandmother's father. But their own crises and the continued dependence of their children wore them down. By 1982 or so, they were living in a two-bedroom apartment with two of their children and me, with no savings and only my grandfather's income to support us all.
My mother tried to work. Each year she'd have a succession of aggressively part-time jobs. Modeling for art classes and telemarketing were the two biggest categories. Seasonal retail from time to time, but those jobs really went fast. (Once I tried going in to the gift shop of a museum where she'd gotten a Christmas job; she'd told me to call a certain number to verify her employee discount, if I wanted to buy anything. I picked out a Georgia O'Keefe poster and had the clerk call. Annajane had been fired that morning.) Absolute max of ten thousand per year, and usually much less.
Because Annajane had custody, and because my situation was so much more complicated than the divorces the financial aid system is designed to ferret out, she was the only person whose income got listed on my financial aid forms for Impressive. I qualified for a lot of financial aid. (I don't think it would have been very different if my grandparents had been included, given their non-existent assets and many dependents.) But I always had to scramble to eliminate the last $500 or so each semester: essentially, the family contribution.
At Harvard, the idea of eliminating the parental contribution grew out of focus groups with lower-income students last fall. University officials found that many of the students were paying some or all of their parents' share themselves.
Annajane was very proud that I was going to Impressive. But she resented every request made by the institution, even ones that were strictly paperwork. One year she refused for weeks to send me her tax returns—she had 11 W2's, and it was just going to be extremely difficult to photocopy them all.
Annajane was, of course, crazy. It's fascinating, though, to learn that my underresourced family wasn't alone in pushing most of the "family contribution" onto the student. When you're poor, and your kid's at some fancy school, both scraping together even the perhaps very small amounts of money requested and assembling the yearly documentation can be very difficult things to do. First of all, you probably don't have the money. But also, maybe you're not used to keeping those kinds of records, or you don't like thinking about how badly off you really are (let alone telling other people about it in excruciating detail), or you resent the child's success.
It was a little unreal. I knew perfectly well that my classmates' families were paying four-figure bills, and that some of them were making huge sacrifces to do so. But just a few hundred here, few hundred there, and the yearly effort to document the continued need, were a struggle, one which ate weeks of my emotional energy every year.
Parents who earn less than $40,000 are now asked to contribute an average of $2,300. That figure will drop to zero under the new plan, which begins in the fall. Parents with incomes of $40,000 to $60,000 will have their contributions cut to an average of $2,250, from an average of $3,500.
According to the 1999 Census, 47.4 percent of the population had a household income below $40,000 and 67.1 percent had an household income below $60,000.
Harvard officials said they expected the new initiative to cost about $2 million next year and to help about 1,000 of the 6,600 undergraduates.
Think about how cheap that really is, compared to an anticipated total of $80 million dollars in grant aid next year. Think about how few students from these entirely normal backgrounds are at Harvard.
There seem to be some associated recruitment initiatives going on. Whatever. But thank you, President Summers, for putting that money on the table.