The fight for free tuition at Harvard just encountered a major setback

Harvard University Students Commencement Graduation
Harvard University. Paul Marotta/Getty Images

Harvard alumni elected a new slot of members to the Harvard Board of Overseers on Monday — but none of them were members of “Free Harvard Fair Harvard,” a group of five men running on an aggressive platform to make Harvard free for all.

The group’s most vocal member, Ron Unz, a Harvard alumnus and former publisher of The American Conservative, expressed disappointment over the loss while highlighting the impact of his campaign.

“I do think we certainly got a lot of media coverage and focus out there about the absurd, disproportionate size of Harvard’s investment income compared to their annual tuition, and it could be that will start more pressure on the issue going forward,” Unz told the Times.

Unz had argued that eliminating tuition would make the school more diverse, as a free school would draw more low-income (predominantly minority) students.

While Harvard currently provides free tuition for any student whose family makes less than $65,000 a year, Unz believes all students should reap this benefit and points to the school’s massive endowment as a potential source.

The school’s endowment was $37.6 billion at the end of last year, making it the largest university endowment in the world. For perspective, that’s more than eight times larger than Donald Trump’s net worth, estimated at $4.5 billion, according to Forbes.

Cambridge - Harvard Square: Harvard University - John Harvard
A statue in Harvard Yard. Flickr / Wally Gobetz

For the 2015-2016 school year, Harvard reports 6,700 students and a tuition price of $57,200.

If all students pay full tuition, that equates to about $383 million in income for the school year — not so hefty a a sum when you consider the school’s endowment as well, on which investment income earned Harvard $1.2 billion in 2015.

But defenders of the current structure of tuition said Unz’s argument failed to recognise the already substantial contribution Harvard makes toward tuition.

Harvard provides generous financial aid and has awarded more than $1.4 billion to undergraduates in the past decade, Jeff Neal, a Harvard spokesperson, told the Times in January.

Harvard notes online that approximately 70% of our students receive some form of aid, and about 60% receive need — based scholarships and pay an average of $12,000 per year.”

Critics also asserted a large endowment doesn’t necessarily enable the college to offer free tuition. The endowment is not like “one big bank account” that can be drawn from for any purpose, Robert Reischauer, an economist and former senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation, argued in a letter to the Times.

“I hardly think that spending such a tiny slice of Harvard’s investment income on education is so unreasonable, and I find it difficult to believe that undisclosed restrictions on the university’s financial holdings would legally prohibit this,” Unz hit back, in a letter in The Times.

The vote on Monday, which ended Free Harvard Fair Harvard’s election hopes, brings to a close several months of debate between the group and Harvard University about the viability and necessity of free tuition.

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