What if Harvard is free? To be specific, Harvard tuition is literally free to students from low income families. Harvard University renewed its efforts and announced the plan a decade ago that undergraduate students from low-income families would pay no tuition. For families who earn between $65,000 and $150,000, the expected contribution is somewhere between zero and 10% of families’ annual income. That said, if families earn below $65,000 per year, students won’t pay anything. The goal is to bring the most promising students to Harvard and ensure that any admitted students could afford their full Harvard experience with no burden on their shoulders.

Ivy League schools such as Harvard and Yale live up to images of elitism, exclusivity, and excellence. Attending one of these schools is a dream for many, but the cost of attending is dreadful. Attending Harvard, for example, costs upwards of $51,000 in tuition fees. In addition, room & board and other university fees bring up the total price tag more than $80,000 per year. Yet, this is not the most expensive one. Columbia University in the City of New York, for example, could add another $10,000 to Harvard’s tuition. To sum it up, a Harvard degree can cost more than $300,000 per student if they have to pay the cost in full. 

An Ivy League school degree is more than just a social cachet. It paves the road to a great-paying job or more advanced post-graduate degree program. Many parents think that Ivy league education is an amazing investment by nearly any measure. But, it does not always come cheap. Harvard claims that its admission process is entirely need-blind and it is willing to support students and reduce their cost burden. On average, $53,000 was disbursed to students and more than half of the students enrolled at Harvard receive need-based scholarships. As Harvard is committed to diversity and inclusion, it aims to invite top students with different social backgrounds. Harvard admission is completely based on merit, not money. 

Harvard is a well-funded school by its prestigious endowment program that has scaled up to $53.2 billion. Harvard Management Company returned 33.6% on its investments in fiscal year 2021. This is a monumental financial gain of over $11 billion just in one year. The endowment receives philanthropic gifts donated to support specific aspects of Harvard’s teaching and research. Without doubt, these gifts connect scholars and students from diverse backgrounds and make them land on an opportunity at Harvard. In the 2021 fiscal year alone, $597 million was granted to students in financial aid and scholarships. The endowment is a critical pillar of any funding needs at Harvard, making up more than one third of Harvard’s revenue. 

Any major university endowment is structured to exist in perpetuity. Universities shall continue to rely on the endowment’s earning potentials. Any excess or value appreciation is retained in the endowment so that it can continue to support future generations. The endowment is carefully managed and guided by the principles of intergenerational equity. The majority of 14,000 funders behind the Harvard endowment have specified that their gifts must support a particular cause such as endowed professorships. The sole purpose of the endowment should belong to students and scholars who will shape the future. 

Higher education is a costly endeavor. Most parents will give everything to ensure their children are well educated to succeed. Any external resource would help them to cover the cost of expensive education. The endowment is often misunderstood as a free checkbook, though, but that is not how the endowment is supposed to operate. The endowment has blossomed but it has to continue seeding fairer admissions and making education more equitable. Elite schools have amassed huge wealth and also enjoyed a tax-free nature of a university endowment. Hence, many argue that elite schools like Harvard have a moral obligation to prioritize egalitarian education opportunities even if it could impact their bottom line.

In 2016, Ron Unz, a tech entrepreneur and political activist, organized the “Free Harvard, Fair Harvard” campaign seeking for free tuition fees at Harvard and greater transparency in the admissions process even if he didn’t make it to the board. Claims persist that this free tuition proposal would raise awareness of Harvard as an option for students who may not have considered the Ivy League before. Others also argue that college education should be free with government support. Germany tops the list of countries where one can pursue higher education at no cost. Federal financial aid and scholarships help students afford college. Otherwise, rising tuition costs would bury students or supporting families in debt, raising questions about college’s true value. The economic downturn is poised to worsen the college affordability crisis and widen the opportunity gap between low and high-income households. 

Harvard, like many elite Ivy League universities, has used financial incentives and diversity goals to stimulate the admission of students with high intelligence and potential from modest backgrounds. We’re obsessed with high-status winner-take-all sentiment. Few at the top often get so much more than the rest. I won’t harp on the many themes of exclusivity on Ivy League experiences as college education is not a must-have for wealth and success anymore. However, elite institutions like Harvard continue competing for talent because Harvard lives up to its reputation of admitting the best students and nurturing them to do great things. Harvard has demonstrated this through holistic review in its admissions process as the key to unlocking a diverse educational experience. This is an extremely privileged phenomenon in college admissions reserved for elite institutions with excessive resources required to evaluate college applications and offer ‘almost free’ education to the best of the best in a very thoughtful way. Minds can change and institutions will grow over time. Harvard could be completely free in the talent age as money shouldn’t be an issue to recruit highly talented future leaders.