There's a growing movement to end tuition at one of America's most prestigious colleges

Cambridge - Harvard Square: Harvard University - John HarvardFlickr / Wally GobetzA statue in Harvard Square.

Harvard alumnus Ron Unz — ex-publisher of The American Conservative — has aligned himself with a liberal-sounding cause: He wants his alma mater to stop charging tuition.

Unz is running with four other alums for a spot on the Harvard University Board of Overseers on a ticket to eliminate undergraduate tuition, The Harvard Crimson reported.

The group, which also includes Harvard alum and Green Party presidential nominee Ralph Nader, calls itself “Free Harvard, Fair Harvard.”

Proponents of free tuition contend that Harvard doesn’t need to charge students because its massive endowment generates enough investment income each year to sustain the school.

Harvard’s endowment was $37.6 billion at the end of last year, making it the largest university endowment in the world. For the 2015-2016 school year, Harvard College reports 6,700 students and a tuition price of $57,200.

That equates to about $383 million in tuition money for the school year, a sum that isn’t so hefty when you consider how much the school makes from its endowment. Harvard’s investment income on its endowment for 2015 was $1.2 billion.

Proponents argue that eliminating tuition will make the school more diverse, as low-income (predominantly minority students) will be more drawn to a school that’s free.

“If Harvard eliminated tuition, very quickly almost everyone in America would know about it, and a lot of less affluent families … would suddenly consider Harvard for the first time,” Unz told The Harvard Crimson.

But defenders of the current structure of tuition say this argument fails 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.

Unz hits back at this argument via a letter in The New York Times, arguing that only families who make less than $65,000 a year reap the benefit of free tuition. For other families, especially those in the middle- and upper-middle class, paying about $150,000 for four years of schooling is a severe financial burden.

There’s another argument against eliminating tuition, though. The endowment is not like “one big bank account” that can be drawn from for any purpose, as Robert Reischauer, an economist and former senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation, argues in The Times.

Harvard’s endowment consists of 12,000 distinct funds, Reischauer said.

“The university has an obligation to preserve the long-term value of those funds and to spend the income in accordance with donors’ wishes,” he wrote. “That includes support not just for undergraduate financial aid but also for all of Harvard College, for Harvard’s 12 other schools, for its museums and its academic library, and for faculty research on challenges from cancer to climate change.”

For now, the fight for free tuition at Harvard by “Free Harvard, Fair Harvard” will continue. Overseers elections will take place this spring.

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