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Monday, December 10, 2007

Will Harvard just abolish tuition? Should it?

The NYT just announced that Harvard College is dramatically reducing the tuition charges for its students, even those coming from reasonably affluent families earning six figure incomes. Just this past weekend, I heard that something like this might be in the works, but oddly enough, I heard that Harvard is contemplating abolishing tuition altogether, which it could plausibly do in light of the outstanding returns on endowment investments the last ten years.

The advantages of such a move are obvious: it would make clear to all potential students that they have a shot at a great education without fear of imperiling their family's scarce resources. Though the yield and financial aid at Harvard are very high and very good, I suspect many good students turn Harvard down every year for free rides at other schools. Abolishing tuition would encourage more students to apply and more admitted students to accept offers of admission.  But are there any downsides aside from the obvious financial impingements on other university objectives?

I think so.  I say this as someone who benefited from Harvard's generosity as an undergrad and law student. To be sure, I would very much like to have liberated my parents from having to make a contribution to my education.  But I do think it's good that students themselves feel some pinch if only because it makes them feel like a stakeholder in their own education as well as their future. Students who don't have to make any sacrifice for their education (especially those from privileged backgrounds) are at risk of undervaluing the experience or feeling entitled to it. The best way to overcome this, I think, is for tuition to be scaled to students' future incomes so the value of the education is paid in a way proportionate to the (material) benefits of the education itself.

On this plan, Harvard would simply collect (for the sake of argument) 1% of the student's income for the thirty years after graduation. Those going to hedge funds and law firms will pay more while those pursuing teaching or public interest work will pay less over time. To avoid perverse incentives, one would probably have to ensure that everyone falls prey to this system--lest the people who know they want to be investment bankers would try to  opt out of the system by securing alternative funds. Of course, that point generalizes beyond  the pool of Harvard applicants too, but my guess is that  enough people want the branding that at the time of application to college, they would be willing to authorize paying an additional Harvard college (or law school) "tax" for the years after graduation. Meanwhile, it would place the burden of paying for higher education on the person who benefits most directly from the education: the student, rather than the parents.

Given that Harvard has the resources to undertake this social experiment, I wonder if  it should bite the bullet and do it. Any thoughts on whether this alternative is unworkable or unattractive?

Posted by Administrators on December 10, 2007 at 06:56 PM in Article Spotlight, Current Affairs, Dan Markel | Permalink


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I provide significantly more than 1% of my income to my institutions of higher learning, and will be doing so for at least the next 15 years: student loans. Is it better that the school received that as I went through school or would have been better off receiving a percentage of my future income? A dollar today is worth more than a dollar tomorrow, I suppose. But I like the idea of a tuition that is proportional to future income (even though the added expense of law, med, and other schools do this, albeit ineffectively and in a manner that makes it harder to take lower paying).

Now, if a presidential candidate wants my vote, all they have to do is make more student loan interest tax deductible. That would be awesome.

Posted by: Anon | Dec 10, 2007 9:52:39 PM

I object to the notion of paying based on future earnings. I think you'll find that for many grads, the content of their undergraduate education has little to do with future success. They gain simply from having the rubber stamp of the degree and the contacts made at elite institutions. And when intellectual capability does matter, it has more to do with the individual. Also consider the case of the medical or law school after undergrad, exactly what share of the grad's income should the undergrad institution get when the professional school the pt went to is actually responsible for future earnings.

Posted by: ATM | Dec 10, 2007 10:34:44 PM

"The best way to overcome this, I think, is for tuition to be scaled to students' future incomes..."

At this point in your essay I thought you were going to say "so charge money for law, medicine and engineering, while those sociology majors get a free ride."

Posted by: Brock | Dec 10, 2007 10:47:15 PM

Why just Harvard? Why not all schools? What makes Harvard that much different? Please explain.

Posted by: johnd01 | Dec 10, 2007 11:20:20 PM

I doubt that Harvard will drop tuition. They will continue to charge a nominally high tuition, and grant scholarships. If they did not, then the other scholarships (such as, the federally funded Goldwater scholarship) would not go to them. It is like turning down money.

What Harvard does now is called discriminatory pricing, rather like the car salesman who knows by looking at your shoes what your take home pay is within 10 percent, and then comes up with a deal to take ALL your disposable income. Not because he needs to. Because he can.

Posted by: Don Meaker | Dec 10, 2007 11:21:49 PM

"The best way to overcome this, I think, is for tuition to be scaled to students' future incomes so the value of the education is paid in a way proportionate to the (material) benefits of the education itself."

I think it should be scaled to the overall benefits to America. I appreciate your knowledge, Dan, but America needs engineers and chemists and geologists. We don't need the tens of thousands of college grads who skate through their 4, 5, 6 years as undergrads with nonsense degrees in cultural studies and journalism.

I know from experience. I took the easy way and went to j-school. Reporters don't need 4 years of college in order to do their work, they just need to write well and be inquisitive. I had to retrain myself after graduating into the real world.

Give the free ride to productive degrees, make everyone who wants to skate through college pay.

We also need skilled tradesmen. Plumbers, mechanics and electricians are absolutely vital, yet too often these careers are looked down upon. COLLEGE FOR ALL is nonsense. We need top-notch trade schools, and we should encourage more high school kids who don't have the aptitude for the hard sciences to attend them, rather than shuffling them off to easy, meaningless college degrees.

Posted by: Lou Minatti | Dec 10, 2007 11:32:15 PM

As one who skated through Harvard College on his parents' dime, I'm with Lou Minatti, pretty much. And with the blog's author in some ways. As to what makes Harvard unique (in answer to another comment): not much, apart from the University's world-beating endowment and position as a national exemplar. Those aren't unique either, but they do put Harvard in the position of being a compelling case.

Posted by: J-L | Dec 10, 2007 11:42:55 PM

But I do think it's good that students themselves feel some pinch if only because it makes them feel like a stakeholder in their own education as well as their future.

I think that's the key graf. I certainly put money into my own education via summer and vacation jobs, and as a faculty person (I teach medicine at a big university in the Midwest) I've found that the students who are paying all/most of their way are generally a touch more driven. Asking a young person to work for their education, both the knowledge and the funding, pays dividends into the future.

But I'd sure like my university to have Harvard's endowment :-)

Posted by: Steve White | Dec 11, 2007 12:08:10 AM

On the one hand, sad to say, 1% of my post-Harvard earnings, over twenty-five years, are actually less than what my family paid for my Harvard education. On the other hand, not one dime of even that paltry income can be attributed to my Harvard education. No employer has ever cared whether I had it, the relevant vocational skills were not acquired there, etc. There is no "average" connection between a Harvard education and income to make this work.

Posted by: Bill Adams | Dec 11, 2007 12:13:07 AM

Your plan doesn't have the effect you wanted (making students feel like they have a stake in their education). Instead it makes them slaves for their (already bloated with cash) institution, even if they're working in public schools.

I think Harvard does a good enough job of picking applicants that it doesn't need to worry about admitting lazy people.

If students are no longer eligible for scholarships, that benefits most of them. Under the current scheme, the majority will not receive a prestigious scholarship. They look diminished vs. those who do get scholarships. If nobody gets any prestigious scholarships, they're all on equal footing.

If Harvard really cares about sending its students out into the world to do good work, it shouldn't tax them after graduation, it should let them graduate without debt, so they have more options.

Posted by: Daryl Herbert | Dec 11, 2007 12:20:28 AM

When I was at another school down the Charles from Harvard in the 90s, I heard the then-president of Harvard give a talk where he said "all we need is a gigabuck or two" --and yes, I remember that quote-- to make Harvard College tuition free.

That was 10 years ago. Why have they not? Harvard has an endowment of over $30 Billion Dollars. They have had the capacity to do this for quite sometime. Tuition at Harvard at 30k & 7,000 only comes to 200k. So, as noted, 2 billion was enough for them to kick off enough earnings per year to not dent their endowment. Since they've got 30, 2 billion earmarked for tuition free undergrads just wouldn't kill them.

IIRC, Yale already had decided to cover whatever portion of its tuition that an undergrad applicant's FAFSA does not, over a year or two ago.

So why doesn't Harvard go tuition free? It has nothing to do with UNDERGRADs feeling aas stakeholders. The undergrads are not the majority of the ones paying, except with loans, which does not make them feel anything. It has to do with cachet, I imagine. I imagine they are afraid of what it would do to admissions.

MIT has a different solution: make all of the courseware available free on the web. That way you don;t need to drive up admissions, as people can take the classes anywhere, at any school or at any time. The value of going then is the social value of the networking, the camaraderie, the value put on pushing oneself around people smarter than oneself. But Harvard was never that difficult of a school, and its courseware isn't all that interesting. Its difficulty comes from how difficult it is to get in. Statistically, if making the school tuition free increases applications by 10 fold or more, it will be difficult for their current applicant systems to handle it. I think that's the only real issue for them at this point.

Posted by: mouse | Dec 11, 2007 1:53:49 AM

A few comments from someone else who was able to (briefly) attend "another school down the Charles from Harvard":

The "stakeholder" argument is important: I've heard that back when Oxbridge tuition was free, studies frequently did not take their studies seriously.

The current US system puts many students in quite a bind---especially if they need an undergraduate degree that will get them into a good grad school---because many parents who can pay simply won't, and the financial aid system cannot accommodate this due to the free-rider problem.

A VERY large fraction of the parents who visit MIT with their children do so only to find reasons or excuses for why a local state school is "good enough".

A grave problem with the current system is that it doesn't work for children from broken families where both biological parents are expected to pay what they can, but one refuses. Almost all of MIT's students come from intact families (as of the late 1980s).

It's not clear to me which policy would result in a better outcome for the most people. MIT itself is not hurting, it has three times as many qualified applicants as it can admit, and I'm sure Harvard's numbers are better.

I'm now restarting my science education, and have found that only some of MIT's OpenCourseWare offerings are suitable for self-study. Some are almost entirely useless even for teachers looking for material upon which to base a class. There are also a few gaping holes, at least in my speciality (e.g. 2nd and 3rd term inorganic chemistry, but no 1st term and no plans for it at this time).

Finally, this will NEVER become widespread for one simple reason: undergraduate tuition (be it from the student's family or the government) is entirely unrestricted in how it can be spent. Much if not most of the other income of a university is quite restricted (research grant overhead, alums who don't trust administrators, something underlined by the current Princeton mess), and I just don't see very many schools abandoning this pot of gold.

Harvard is a special case in every way, and its hesitation speaks for itself.

Posted by: Harold | Dec 11, 2007 7:20:20 AM

"On this plan, Harvard would simply collect (for the sake of argument) 1% of the student's income for the thirty years after graduation."

Such advance thinking. Let's see if we've had this before. Why, yes.

"Debt bondage or bonded labor is a means of paying off loans with direct labor instead of currency or goods. It is either a kind of indenture or truck system, and is a form of unfree labor. Historically, in the USA, it is also sometimes called peonage. (Note, however, that the word peon has broader implications and usage in Latin America.)

Posted by: Don | Dec 11, 2007 7:59:35 AM

If Harvard doesn't need the money, then make the students pay with something far more precious. Time. Tutoring at risk kids, serving as teaching assistants at local schools, providing services to the lower income communities in Boston based on course work would all take care of the 'sense of entitlement' issue better than most tuition programs, as you can't borrow 20 hours today and pay it back in 10 years. Nor can mommy or daddy put in the time for you. A student has to average 20 hours a week while school is in session in an approved volunteer program, and no 'raising awareness' is allowed. You actually need to do something tangible.

Posted by: Joe | Dec 11, 2007 1:08:42 PM

I think Dan's 1% idea is clever, and I wonder if it could be taken a step further... If, like David Bowie, promising students could sell bonds tied to future earnings on an open market.

Lou makes a good point: that simply tying all tuition at a college to future income creates perverse incentives for Useless Studies majors. "Gee, I can go to Harvard to study Merovingian Transsexuals and only pay $10? COOL!" So negotiate a deal at a finer level of granularity: by department, professor, or even individual student. Thus e.g. every CS major in a given year could get the same deal; or every one of Professor Plum's students; or even an especially promising student could negotiate a better deal with investors.

Doing this on the open market offers added benefits. It prices the bond correctly. It removes any conflict of interest for the school. It cleanses countless Augean stables while keeping administration hands clean. It does not discourage risk-taking and entrepreneurship the way that student loans do.

This being San Francisco, I'm sure someone could whip up a web site to do this: "Put your own career on eBay!" ;-)

Posted by: San Fran William | Dec 11, 2007 1:21:00 PM

Thanks to Instapundit for the link and bringing in this group of comments. Let me try to address a few. Obviously, the plan I propose is different from student loans because they are based on a fixed amount of interest and principal. The plan I suggest is designed to facilitate accountability and proportionality while at the same time give graduates from wealthy institutions like Harvard the chance to experiment with different career paths and not feel that they need to take jobs with crushing hours and unsatisfying conditions of employment just to pay off student loans. Importantly, the plan is also different from debt bondage, though I am grateful to Don for the analogy. With debt bondage, all the revenue a laborer generates goes to retiring the debt. Here, the debt is voluntarily assumed by application to college and would be a very small percentage of one's income. Moreover, the debt contract to Harvard would have no capacity to restrict one's freedom to work whereever one one wanted to work.

One person asked why only Harvard and not other schools. I suggested in the original post that Harvard has the resources to undertake this bold social experiment, but in principle, I think that the government should also offer this kind of plan to make higher education available. The difficulty is whether the government should offer this as an option or require it as a form of social policy. By making it mandatory, it reduces the likelihood of adverse selection effects. (This is similar to health care insurance debates.) But the mandatory nature may be viewed by some to be too great an infringement of liberty and spending choices. Someone might say: if I worked hard (e.g., as a child actor), why can't I pay my tuition in one payment? Parents might feel the same way if they want to be generous. These liberty values are not at stake in the same way if just Harvard and a few other schools undertook this way of financing.

Someone else mentioned that Harvard is simply engaged in price discrimination. I don't think this is entirely accurate. Price discrimination suggests--to me at least--that differential pricing is adopted in order to maximize revenues. But that's clearly not what Harvard is doing. If it simply wanted to generate revenues, it could easily auction off the admission spots and retain its long-term reputational cache by restricting the potential buyers to valedictorians only. Alternatively, Harvard could more modestly reduce grants and give loans. But Harvard doesn't do that and takes its goal of facilitating educational access to students from all financial backgrounds quite seriously.

Further, some comments pointed out that students don't derive material benefits from their undergrad so much as their grad school education. I think this is plainly contestable but I have no objection to Harvard Law School (or FSU's College of Law for that matter) choosing to make its education available through a tax-financed plan also. Perhaps it would simply be another tack on of 1%. I'll leave the math to the actuaries...

One last point for now: schools that really need alumni donations to keep operations going may want to consider whether donations will decline if they adopt the plan I propose. It's possible that the meaning of "giving" to the school will be changed when the giving is regularized and predictable through a tax. It's also possible that schools can overcome this potential revenue shortfall by actually adopting a progressive tax, so that the very wealthy might pay 2% of their marginal income instead of 1%.

Posted by: Dan Markel | Dec 11, 2007 1:23:38 PM

If Harvard eliminated tuition, that would simply be a subsidy to the rich. Bringing the best students from around the world to Cambridge regardless of their ability to pay is unquestionably part of its public-service mission. Handing valuable benefits to people who can easily afford to pay for them is not. I knew quite a number of people at Harvard College who were paying their tuition themselves...from a trust fund. That's not a bad thing, but it doesn't make sense to me to hand them a free benefit.

I'm in favor of the current system, cranked up to 11: I think tuition should equal the per-student cost of operating the college (which is ~$70,000/year IIRC) and then be discounted accorded to need the same way it is now. It's accessible to everyone, but the filthy rich don't get a freebie. I'm not worried about yield; they'll still come!

Posted by: Harvard alum | Dec 11, 2007 7:33:59 PM

Harvard Alum: So people's consumption of services should be completely insulated from their ability to pay for them?

Posted by: Conservative | Dec 11, 2007 8:01:54 PM

You are proposing, in essence, equity financing rather than the traditional debt financing of education. You are not the first one to think of this idea. Equity ownership of another's labor smacks too much of slavery so its Constitutionality is questionable.

Posted by: JD/MBA | Dec 11, 2007 8:31:10 PM

A few more quick reactions:
Joe's idea of making students pay with time is intriguing but it would have the disadvantage of not bringing in any money, whereas the plan I suggested might actually be revenue neutral over time or even revenue enhancing. The idea that students should perform some pro bono service as a requirement for graduation is not a bad one; some law schools now do this.

SFWilliam's idea is clever but I doubt there's going to be a market for each student at the level of granularity proposed. There's also nothing to stop that market from developing now since there isn't a collective action issue; one might think that the fact the market hasn't yet erupted is indicative that there's not much of a demand here. Not sure.

Harvard Alum's comment is not a bad system but the problem is that the rich kids whose parents pay full fare won't feel any of the pinch the plan is supposed to achieve. The current system is a subsidy for rich kids even if it's not a subsidy for rich parents.

JD/MBA's observation is shrewd. This is a form of equity financing but the differences are important: unlike equity financing, here the equity holder exercises NO control over the career path of the person. Moreover, the motivation of the equity financier is not to make money off any one individual; indeed, I assume that a wealthy institution like Harvard would be just fine if the plan didn't lead to revenue neutral results. Btw, I never said I was the first to think of this idea, but I'd be grateful if you could let me know of the others who did so I can properly acknowledge them. I didn't do a preemption check before writing this blog post. For what it's worth, I'm skeptical that this proposal raises any non-frivolous constitutional questions about slavery. But if you have any citations to court cases or even law review articles indicating why this is doubtful, I'd be keen to see them.

Posted by: Dan Markel | Dec 11, 2007 9:07:27 PM

I believe Yale had a program called the "Tuition Postponement Option" that did something like this. There's quite an extended literature about it, and why it failed. (From the Chronicle of Higher Education: "Some view the program as having been an embarrassing flop, others as a noble but flawed experiment. The World Bank's Mr. Salmi says it "illustrates how the implementation of a theoretically sensible and generous concept turned into a nightmarish adventure.") Its details were a bit different. As described in the Chronicle, "Under Yale's Tuition Postponement Option, graduates had to repay yearly 0.4 percent of their salary for each $1,000 they had borrowed. (Tuition was considerably lower then.) Each borrower had to continue paying until the debt of their entire graduating class was repaid. The program unraveled when high-earning graduates realized they would have to repay far more than they had borrowed, subsidizing not only students in low-paying professions, but the 15 percent of graduates who were deadbeats. Few students realized how many classmates would renege on the loans."

Among the problems for a program like this is that people who are going to earn a ton of money won't do it. So there's the normal "cream"/unraveling problem that occurs in so many insurance schemes.

It was just a few years ago that Yale finally ended the program, and forgave all outstanding loans. A search of "Tuition Postponement Option" would get you lots and lots of information on this and other similar programs. There was one at Duke, too.

Posted by: Margo Schlanger | Dec 12, 2007 12:06:24 AM

--I've heard that back when Oxbridge tuition was free, studies frequently did not take their studies seriously.

I'm sorry, do you think most Harvard undergrads take their studies seriously now? You are sorely mistaken.

Making them pay with time does not work either. Why? Because studying with time was supposed to be how they showed their stake in the first place. Those who cared more, did better. Those who didn't, did badly. Granted, that stopped working a while ago, when classes because B+/A- centered. Any other system will be gamed as easily. If the issue really is that you think the students need to be stakeholders, then stop the FAFSA from asking about parents' money, and stop making it effectively a requirement that the parents pay.

But we are not a society where the students are the stakeholders. We are a society where the parents of the students are the stakeholders. Yet this is an awfully strange argument--what's their stake? Simply that the child graduates with a Harvard degree after drinking and drugs for 4 years, as the goal is to help keep the child gainfully employable, moreso than if they just drank and drugged for 4 years at the local state school.

Again, that's about cachet. If they receive an order of magnitude more applications, they will have difficulty winnowing down to where they haven't simply admitted the wrong crowd.

Because the point of the middle class sending their child to Harvard is that their child could room with a princess of a minor island nation-state, could go drinking with an Ambassador's son, could conceivably get to know the wealthy. This is what will get them that better job. If all of your classmates are just as middle class as you, then it really is not better than State U after all.

Posted by: mouse | Dec 12, 2007 1:22:49 AM

----I've heard that back when Oxbridge tuition was free, studies frequently did not take their studies seriously.

--I'm sorry, do you think most Harvard undergrads take their studies seriously now? You are sorely mistaken.

Most? Not enough data.

A lot? *Absolutely*, from observations both direct (friends and friends of friends) and indirect (overhearing conversations in Harvard Square).

Certainly all the students planning on careers that depend on their getting into really good graduate schools don't spend their 4 years in "drinking and drugs" (or those alone :-).

There's a LOT more to the Harvard than the cachet; I think the single biggest thing may be nothing more than the power of positive thinking. Harvard undergraduates are told they are the very best in the nation and that after they graduate they will be running it (and a lot of the world). I think it's hard to underestimate the effect of that.

Your question of who are or should be the real stakeholders is a good one, but the thesis that the value to middle class students of attending Harvard is simply getting to know the powerful and wealthy is ludicrous to the point where I seriously wonder about your actual familiarity with the campus and its inhabitants. Your comments certainly don't match my direct observations in the 1980s, or those of a friend who went to Wellesley in the late '60s and who has stayed in Cambridge working in higher education since then.

Posted by: Harold | Dec 12, 2007 5:27:13 AM

It would be unwise for Harvard to drop tuition entirely, for a number of reasons. First, this would prevent them from getting federal and outside student aid money. Second, schools with lower sticker prices attract fewer applicants. Perhaps Harvard could be an exception to this rule. Third--and this is the most controversial point here--is that much of Harvard's success comes not from the quality of its education but from the social class of its students. Of course, they are more likely to yield huge donations over the years on top of what they pay in tuition. But more importantly, rich kids bring social networks and experiences that preposition them for success and also provide huge benefits to the school.

Posted by: Chris | Dec 12, 2007 7:20:49 AM

First, what will be the basis of Harvard’s claim of right? You call it a tax, but Harvard has no power to tax. It must rely on private law, i.e. contract. Then, the issue, irrespective of Harvard’s motivations or its control over the student, is whether a student may voluntarily waive his 13th Amendment protection and enter into an enforceable contract in which he places his future earnings, i.e. human capital, as bargained-for legal detriment.

Phrased this way, we begin to see the building blocks of an indentured servitude. I need not explain the history of indentured servitudes or that both indentured servitude, a sale of one’s labor, and slavery, a sale of an individual, were abolished by the 13th Amendment. A short Google search will confirm: there is plenty of literature concluding/accepting that human capital cannot be separated from human beings because the law prohibits slavery. Indeed, the Amendment stands for the proposition that human rights trump one’s property rights over his own labor.

But if I must cite, I would credit Milton Friedman, who half-lamented that there may be underinvestment in human capital due to its unmarketability.

If Harvard went ahead with this, I would not seek a declaratory judgment. I would, however, advise contract-bound Harvard graduates that their contracts are on shaky grounds and that there is a good chance that courts might not enforce them. I don’t think there is anything frivolous about this. A percentile of their future income vs. attorney fees? It might be a worthwhile bet for them.

I have specific questions:
Do you agree with me that contract is the appropriate legal medium?

Do you think that such legal rights created between the parties (whether by contract or otherwise) are assignable, alienable, or attachable?

Would your opinion change if the percentages were different? What happens if other institutions, following Harvard’s lead but unable to fund their operations from their endowments alone, raise the ante and require 25% of future earnings? (leading to revenue neutral result, since other institutions’ students are less talented and therefore have lower lifetime earning potential, for the sake of argument)

If your proposal becomes widely accepted, do you expect non-traditional criteria such as age, health, family’s health history, and family’s wealth/income (understanding their correlation to the student’s future lifetime income) to affect the admission process?

Posted by: JD/MBA | Dec 12, 2007 9:45:37 AM

Margo, thanks for the reference to the Yale Tuition Postponement Plan; I found the Chronicle article and some other cites to a Yale LJ piece about it, which look interesting. Readers may also want to look at David Moss' posts on Credit Slips: http://www.creditslips.org/creditslips/MossAuthor.html

Given that these income contingent plans occurred in the past here and occur in other liberal democracies (Australia seems to have a broader version of this) that have antipathy to slavery, I'm pretty convinced that the 13th Amendment objections are a non-starter, at least given the constraints I've mentioned: the creditor has no control over the debtor's choice of work, and the debtor pays only a small percentage of one's income for a discrete period of time and the debt would not be passed on to one's heirs. In some sense, debt is not really an accurate word because the plan I suggested doesn't have a fixed amount at any point so one is never "paying down" the debt the way one does a mortgage.
The problem with Yale's plan as I understand it is that it roped together all the classmates to "pay down" tuition, and so it had a much more "loan" type feel, but with predictable unravelling problems. Likely, Yale thought it would try to recoup all its expenses. Under this proposal, the financier is essentially indifferent to capturing back a fixed amount. And while some people would ex post object to having to pay so much more money, ex ante they might agree to it if they didn't know they were going to be successful materially or not and they believed in the equal access mission.
JD/MBA's comments about orthogonal factors affecting the admissions process suggest to me an unwillingness to relent from a purely economic maximizing agent. That's not what Harvard has been about in the past nor is that my supposition of what it will be in the future if it seriously considered this plan. Btw, the concern that Harvard would have to turn down funding from other sources is only an issue if we assume that Harvard wants to capture more revenue rather than use its enormous wealth for its own purposes. I'm guessing that there could be a design to work around the outside funding issue but I'm grateful to those who brought it up.
Anyway, thanks for such thoughtful comments.

Posted by: Dan Markel | Dec 12, 2007 11:04:46 AM

At a minimum, they should adopt the Davidson plan. In the Spring of 2007, Davidson College committed to meeting 100% of the demonstrated financial need of its students, without resorting to student loans. Davidson's endowment is minuscule compared to Harvard or any other Ivy.


Posted by: Rosenquest | Dec 12, 2007 1:01:01 PM

Oh, by the way, there are quite a few examples of free graduate schools that don't become less competitive to get into or less serious once students are there: Curtis Institute of Music (no tuition, very tough auditions); Yale School of Music (same, though only in the very recent past); most PhD programs in serious academic fields at the best schools. So I don't think that's necessarily much of a concern for Harvard or anywhere else that could afford to take the step of doing away with tuition.

Posted by: Margo Schlanger | Dec 12, 2007 11:27:33 PM

The idea of not having tuition is an attractive one indeed, both for parents and students alike. I think it would be a good idea for several reasons and I feel that the disadvantages mentioned by Mr. Markel do not take into account the changed applicant pool that Harvard might attract, and imagine this, might even admit! If it became known the Harvard college abolished tuition, I would venture to guess that the number of applications would increase exponentially, that the quality of applications would actually be much higher, and that the degree of motivation of those students accepted would actually be improved.

Let me break it down.

The fact that the number of applications would increase dramatically if tuition was abolished is self explanatory. However, would the quality of the applications improve? I would say yes because Harvard would have the benefit of receiving applications from students who are in the lower echelons of the economic pool, yet have managed through shear strength and academic determination to climb to the top of their pools. Yet, you say, the fish in their pools are not as big and bright so what does it matter if they are number one where they are? Surely they can't compare to the number ones at Exeter? I beg to differ- those students at Exeter who manage to rise to the top of their classes have limitless amounts of assistance to get where they are- tutors, counselors, family legacies, etc. I think that Joe Shmo from Podunk public high school probably has more innate faculties and resourcefulness than Sir Joe Shmo Jr. from Exeter.

Also, since the most motivated students will now be admitted (not the semi-motivated and semi-intelligent who can pay the tuition or perhaps have a legacy), the competition within the accepted student body will be higher. Those students who merely go to Harvard or Yale as a namesake but don't actually need to do well will be eliminated. (Re: George Bush at Yale)

This all sounds very warm and fuzzy, but let's get serious. After all, this is Harvard we're talking about. What is Harvard without a little bit of snobbery and elitism? If you can't pay to play, then get out of the field.

The idea of placing a basic "progressive tax" on the student body makes me cringe. Perhaps it's the "anonymous lawyer" in me coming out, but the idea that I should pay a higher tax to Harvard college simply because I can (and because I made the more sensible choice of becoming a doctor rather than an artist) makes me sick. If I have put my sweat and tears into becoming a plastic surgeon and my former classmate sang her days away in music school and decided to become an extra off Broadway for the rest of her life, should I have to bare the burden of her education? What happens if one goes to Harvard College for undergrad and majors in the romance languages (a virtual non-money maker) then moves on to the local state school for medical school (therefore the MD not the BA would be the true reason for that person's lucrative future)? This system seems wrought with problems and smells of communism. Harvard is no place for equality- after all, that's why people go there. People flock to Harvard not for the stellar education (because quite frankly you could get a better undergraduate education at any number of colleges not to mention a better law school education), but for the right to were that stellar crimson H on your chest. The H does not stand for Humane or even helpful- Headstrong or even heinous would be closer to the truth.

Harvard is Harvard for one reason- because of their elitist ways. Harvard's long history of nepotism and plutocracy make it who it is today. Would you be so proud to bare the Harvard crown (that comes in the form of a Harvard degree) if it were just a little more reasonable and down to earth- perhaps more in the range of a Berkeley or a University of Michigan?

So all you aspiring Harvard boys and girls- buck up and pay up because there are few places that teenagers all around the world would willingly bankrupt their families to go to. Take away that threat and Yale will simply take its place as the true creme de la creme.

Posted by: anonymous | Dec 13, 2007 5:10:41 PM

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