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Charles Hamilton Houston quote

  News & Views

Ivy League Generosity Will Lure Affluent and Brightest Blacks Away From State Universities

In December, Harvard University unveiled, with considerable fanfare, an extensive new financial aid program aimed at attracting students from upper-middle-class families. Under the new plan, students from families with annual incomes up to $180,000 will be asked to pay a maximum of 10 percent of the family income for tuition and other fees at Harvard. For these students, the university will provide scholarship grants to make up the rest of the nearly $50,000 annual cost of attending Harvard.

In a further benefit to upper-income families, the value of a family’s primary residence will not be considered in assessing the family’s assets or wealth.

Harvard describes this initiative as a middle-class program but some may see it as aid to students from distinctly upper-class and affluent families. Under the new eligibility rules, families with incomes of as much as $180,000 are eligible to receive significant financial aid of $30,000 or more. Even today, without benefit of this new program, Harvard students from affluent families are receiving generous financial aid. According to a recent address by William Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard, more than 350 undergraduates at Harvard this year whose family income is above $160,000 received financial aid. Dean Fitzsimmons added that the average “need-based” financial aid award for students from families with incomes between $100,000 and $140,000 is $21,693.

An important question is the effect of the new plan on college-bound African Americans. It is certain that the new plan will draw more affluent blacks to Harvard. Consider, as an example, a high achieving black student from a Detroit suburb whose family income is $150,000 or more. In the past, this student would have shied away from applying to Harvard because of its high cost — now approaching $50,000 a year — and the unavailability of financial aid for a student from a family with this relatively high level of income. In most cases, Harvard would have lost this highly accomplished student to the University of Michigan, where in-state tuition costs are a fraction of Harvard’s comprehensive fees. Now the same student may apply to Harvard knowing that if accepted he or she will not have to pay any more than it would cost to attend the University of Michigan.

But obviously the new attraction of Harvard goes far beyond the state of Michigan. Under this dramatic new financial aid initiative Harvard will now draw academically strong upper-income black students whom they have been losing heretofore to high-quality flagship institutions such as the University of Virginia, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Michigan, and the University of California.

In an effort to persuade the academic community that Harvard’s financial muscle  should not be feared, Harvard will make the point that at best it will enroll 200 black freshmen each year. Thus, it will be argued that its new financial aid plan will have a negligible effect on enrollments of blacks at America’s leading state universities.

But this argument overlooks the fact that Harvard’s action will almost force other affluent private universities to adopt a similar financial aid plan aimed at relatively high income students. Currently there are 62 colleges and universities in the United States with endowments of $1 billion or more. Once the Harvard plan becomes the norm for highly endowed institutions, large numbers of highly qualified college-bound blacks will turn their backs on state universities. The only competitive weapon the state universities have is the offering of merit scholarships. But these types of scholarships are limited in dollars and won’t stack up to the huge and almost irresistible financial incentives being offered by America’s wealthiest private universities.

It should be noted that Harvard’s plan will have the effect of adding further affluent influence to an already relatively affluent black student body. Once upon a time back in the 1960s, Harvard aimed to recruit high-potential black students from the so-called urban ghettos. In recent years, it appears that the vast majority of black students at Harvard come from upper-middle-class to affluent families. Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University, has stated his belief that very few of Harvard’s black students are the descendants of American slaves and that most black students at Harvard were from middle-class or affluent black families. A 2006 study by researchers at Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania found that more than one quarter of the native-born black students at 28 selective colleges and universities came from families with annual incomes over $100,000. Therefore, the new Harvard financial aid plan is likely to add more relatively affluent black students to a group that is already relatively affluent.