Ex-American Conservative publisher told us why he's fighting to make Harvard free

The professional aspirations of Ron Unz have run the gamut from unsuccessful campaign for governor of California in 1994 to entrepreneur who founded Wall Street Analytics.

His conservative leanings makes him perhaps an unlikely proponent of free college at Harvard, but he’s proposing just that.

Unz is running for the Board of Overseers with four other alums — including Green Party presidential nominee Ralph Nader — on a ticket to eliminate undergraduate tuition.

Unz is the most outspoken of the bunch when describing his motivations for running for the board. He unapologetically calls attention to the fact that Harvard has a massive endowment yet enjoys tax exemption as an educational institution.

Harvard’s endowment was $37.6 billion at the end of last year, making it the largest university endowment in the world.

“It’s sort of like if Goldman Sachs bought a community college and declared itself tax exempt,” he told Business Insider.

Unz’s decision to run for the board and bring about changes to Harvard’s tuition policy developed slowly over a decade, he said. Unz graduated from Harvard in 1983, double majoring in physics and ancient history. Year after year following his graduation, Harvard fundraisers would visit him in Palo Alto, California asking if he was willing to donate money to the university.

The library at Harvard's Adams HouseFlickr/Paul LowryThe library at Harvard’s Adams House

He engaged in friendly discussion with the fundraisers, he said. However, he always pointed out that given Harvard’s enormous endowment, it didn’t make any sense for people to donate to the university.

He compared it to any other wealthy company.

“I use Google all the time and I think Google’s a great company and has great technology, but if Google asked me for a donation I’d say Google has more money than I do,” he said.

He decided to run for the board last year on a platform of abolishing tuition at Harvard which he says in turn will increase diversity, as low-income (predominantly minority) students will be more drawn to a school that’s free, according to Unz. He also says it’s not just racial diversity that he’s targeting but other less talked about measures, like geographic or socioeconomic diversity.

He’s aiming to bring more transparency to admissions at Harvard, claiming wealthy families can “
buy their children a place at Harvard.”
He calls it “the Harvard price” and claims families with the right connections can give the university “a few million dollars” and gain access for their child into Harvard.

It’s an allegation that is echoed in Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Daniel Golden’s book, “The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges — and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates.”

Golden claims admissions decisions at elite universities do not come down to merit, but instead are a marketplace where wealthy families can buy a spot for their children for the right price.

Unz’s critics feel differently about his aims, arguing they are misplaced and fail 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 New York Times.

Harvard also 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 of Unz also argue the university doesn’t have the ability to use endowment money in the same way it uses funds from 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 The New York Times.

But Unz disagrees with their rebuttal, claiming the financial aid office still misses a huge population of mostly low-income people who have no idea they’re eligible for free or discounted tuition. For these people who aren’t plugged into to the messaging that Harvard is “need blind,” he argues, they miss out on the opportunity as they never even apply.

“Abolishing tuition at Harvard is a very shocking idea when people first hear about it,” he said. “But tuition is such a negligible part of Harvard’s income that they could very easily abolish it.”

A Harvard spokesperson was not immediately available for comment on this article.

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