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Harvard's Financial Aid Failings

 
Frightening economics for graduate and professional students

"For those moving from warmer climates, inexpensive winter clothing can be purchased at local second-hand clothing stores, consignment shops, and discount stores." So applicants to Harvard’s School of Public Health (SPH) are prominently advised, in the financial-aid section of the admissions website. "Dressing in several layers is warmest," the school counsels further, making it possible to "take you through a Boston winter" on a tight budget. The Graduate School of Education, across the Charles River in Cambridge, posts "money-saving tips for HGSE students" on its financial-aid office website. The tips, offered by current matriculants, extol the virtues of "sharing class materials with a friend. Course packs and books are a large expense…." Newcomers are also urged not to "dismiss the idea of living in a dorm too easily, as dorm life has many positive sides."

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Despite fellowships, grants, and employment, Carol Strickland leaves the Graduate School of Education with more than $50,000 in loans to repay.

Photograph by Flint Born

These are only the most vivid examples of Harvard’s financial-aid problem. Aid for undergraduates is popular with donors (attracting $225 million in new endowment during the University Campaign); need-blind admission is the College standard. Not so for graduate and professional students. Pursuing an education at a high-tuition institution like Harvard, in a high-cost area like greater Boston (where housing prices are especially inflated), can be daunting.

One could almost sense deans and students celebrating as President Lawrence H. Summers highlighted financial aid for graduate and professional study during his installation address last October. (One financial-aid dean says he began sketching his school’s needs on the back of an envelope before the president concluded his remarks in Tercentenary Theatre.) Summers declared that "as proud as we all are that any student, as we so often stress, can attend Harvard College regardless of financial circumstance or need…we should not rest until much the same is true of all of this great University." At stake, he has subsequently said, is Harvard’s ability to enroll the best graduate students.

Beyond his statement of principle, Summers raised expectations about relieving the severest pressures. "Inability to pay," he continued in October, "should not constrain students from coming here to Harvard to become scholars or doctors, architects or teachers.

That said, the problem defies any quick fix or uniform solution. Costs and the availability of financial aid affect the span of students’ experience, from applicants’ willingness to apply to Harvard and decisions on whether to enroll if admitted, to their courses of study and professional paths upon graduation. For those pursuing programs that lead to careers in traditionally less remunerative public service—divinity, education, government, and public health among them—the professional choices can be excruciating. In other fields—law, for instance —Harvard students who go into public-interest or nonprofit work (as opposed to private or corporate practice) may be able take advantage of loan-forgiveness programs, an option not available from schools like education or public health. Arts and sciences Ph.D.s who want to pursue academic careers may fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, a range where offers from a financial-services company or biotechnology enterprise seem alluring.

The schools’ scholarship resources vary radically. So does their access to external sources of support such as federal research and training funds. Some schools train older students (who typically have greater family obligations) or have a higher proportion of international students (who qualify for neither federal funding nor domestic loans).

This is, truly, a case where Harvard’s independent "tubs" steer separate courses, making it a challenge to devise workable principles for University-wide financial support.

Vice president for finance Elizabeth C. Huidekoper, who has been leading the administration’s effort to gather and analyze data on current conditions, cites the sheer diversity of the schools and their students. Take the basic "cost of attendance"—what each school tells prospective students they should expect to spend while attending Harvard. The financial-aid sections of the websites for the divinity, design, and business schools recently outlined academic-year costs for a single master’s student of $34,220, $41,730, and $54,800, respectively, reflecting both a wide range in tuition charges and multithousand-dollar differences in estimated costs for housing, food, supplies, and miscellaneous living expenses. If room and board estimates are too low, Huidekoper notes, scholarship students face the prospect of incurring higher loans to pay for their education.

Not that such calculations even arise in many cases. Several professional schools with particularly limited financial-aid funds exclude living expenses from their scholarship awards. The education school, for example, states frankly that "need-based financial aid funds are limited and are not sufficient to cover all the costs of attending graduate school for most applicants…." In fact, grants for master’s students "generally range up to a maximum of $6,000," and the school’s guidance on the cost of attendance stops after listing tuition and fees. (Internally, GSE estimates the cost of attendance at $43,350.) Because there are no funds to defray living expenses, the topic is simply ignored. Students are directed instead to sources of information on pertinent topics such as "debt counseling." De facto, debt becomes the prevailing means of paying the bills.

That makes time the student’s enemy. Daunting as the costs are for a one- or two-year master’s degree, during a multiyear program, a student can easily amass debt—much of it accruing interest as research and dissertation writing proceed—equal to a multiple of expected starting salaries. The education school’s Judith D. Singer and John B. Willett, who made financial aid an urgent priority during their year as acting co-deans, cite an extreme, but not unprecedented, case of a doctoral candidate who accrued $135,000 in loans during her protracted studies. Average exiting debt for Ed.D. students, to whom the school provides its most generous aid packages, is "heading to $70,000 or more," according to Patricia M. White, director of financial aid (see "Daunting Debts"). Recent data show these newly minted education doctorates commanding initial salaries of about $57,000; for master’s graduates, the average debt load is $42,000 and the initial education salary $36,000.?

Unsurprisingly, would-be students know the facts—and act accordingly. The living costs are "forcing the student body to be younger" and unencumbered by families, according to Joel C. Monell, GSE’s dean for administration and academic services. Willett calls that an unwanted development, because "we value experience in the education system as a criterion for coming to the school."

Similarly, Stanley G. Hudson, assistant dean for enrollment services at SPH, cites anecdotal evidence that "a lot of people just don’t come. Faculty members tell us they meet great candidates in the field, but because of the limited amount of funding, they just don’t encourage talented people to apply"—especially from impoverished developing countries, where the public-health needs are most urgent. (Pressure is mounting internally, too. Given that doctoral candidates’ costs are often not fully covered even with scholarships and federal research and training grants, Hudson says, "Some departments feel they shouldn’t be admitting students who can’t be funded"—a subtle skew in admissions practices.)

The most severe pressure falls on two-year master’s students; grants are almost nonexistent, Hudson says, and nearly half of students’ funding comes from loans. As a result, despite the school’s emphasis on international public-health problems, the proportion of international students has declined from nearly one-third to about one-quarter during the past decade. "It has a lot to do with the fact that there’s very little funding for international students," Hudson says, given SPH’s scant resources and limitations on federal funding for those from overseas. Moreover, postgraduate tracking studies indicate that only a small percentage of those from the most impoverished countries have returned home to work—probably another adverse result of low funding.

Among those who apply and are admitted, the intellectual resources of Harvard often fail to outweigh the financial burden. For the very best master’s prospects, says GSE’s Monell, "We’re not at all competitive." Willett ticks off the number of highly desirable prospects lost each year to Stanford, Columbia’s Teachers College, and the University of California system—some five dozen in all—because of superior aid offers.

"Our frustration is that we work hard to identify the very best students we can," says SPH dean Barry R. Bloom. "A very substantial percentage of people we accept choose to go elsewhere, and at least half of that is because of our inability to provide aid." He is particularly agitated by the school’s loss of international candidates, and by the "intolerable" loss of candidates from underrepresented American minority groups. Of the latter, he says, "at least 50 percent of the students accepted have gotten much better scholarship offers elsewhere. That’s a circumstance of which this school and University cannot be proud" (see "Counting the Costs").

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Some $79,000 in debt makes Norma Jimenez "very conscious of what we can do" after earning her doctorate.

Photograph by Flint Born

Once at Harvard, students may be forced to compromise their academic experience. The SPH website encourages students with "unmet need" to consider coping strategies such as "reducing living costs, working, attending school less than full-time," or borrowing. Naturally, students forced to make those choices have fewer opportunities to engage with peers and faculty members or to take in presentations by visiting scholars—essential elements of the education offered by any Harvard school. Willett mourns the costs imposed on students who must work to make ends meet. "Their studies suffer," he says. "Their integration into the school community suffers."

Even within the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS), where scholarship funding has increased by $8 million annually during the past four years, so that most students are now guaranteed tuition support for five years and living expenses for four (assuming a "pretty monastic lifestyle," according to Dean Peter T. Ellison), difficult tradeoffs still occur. Ellison says that during the final year or two of dissertation writing, most humanities and social-sciences candidates do not have fellowships, forcing them to scramble for income and sometimes delaying the completion of their degrees.

Those who shoulder the costs often find their future choices distorted. Struggling to support families and pay off loans "causes people to make career decisions that are not consonant with the mission of the school," says GSE’s Singer. One-third of graduates take jobs outside education.

The situation appears even more starkly at the Kennedy School of Government (KSG), which suggests that master’s degree candidates budget $47,941 for tuition, fees, and expenses during the 2002-2003 academic year. (International students enrolling for the academic year and a summer session need to certify that they can pay $54,214; those accompanied by a spouse and child need $14,000 more.)

The school’s associate dean and director of degree programs, Joseph J. McCarthy, echoes Singer: "Our mission is to produce public leaders, who will go on to produce public good in this country and around the world. Their prospects for remuneration," like teachers’, "are modest" throughout their careers. Last year, he says, 36 graduates were selected as finalists for prestigious federal Presidential Management Intern (PMI) positions, a record for any one school (until exceeded by KSG this year). But only 10 accepted the internships, which pay $38,000 in the first year, and in the mid $40,000 range in the second. Even with $10,000 of loan forgiveness from the school, most graduates, who leave with an average student-loan debt of $42,000, need better wages than the PMI pay—and six-figure consulting assignments are often at hand. (The school’s pending, and steep, tuition increases—see page 83—may only worsen the situation.) Nearly 40 percent of KSG graduates now accept private-sector jobs—and that excludes those who checked the math and opted for law or business school, rather than government studies, in the first place.

 

As Summers’s challenge to the community provokes study of the needs across the University, elements of the response are beginning to emerge, even before proposed solutions are vetted and announced. Atop the agenda, Huidekoper says, is "Housing, housing, housing."

The scarcity of affordable student accommodations aggravates each school’s aid problems. As quickly as aid has been increased in recent years, it has been consumed, and more, by rising rents throughout the Boston area, worsening the largest nontuition component of the "cost of attendance." In effect, Harvard bids against itself, trying to keep up with, while contributing to, inflating prices—a point made repeatedly by Summers, who makes the case for a supply-oriented solution.

Moreover, the graduate schools are already at a competitive disadvantage, Huidekoper says, as Harvard provides University housing for just 39 percent of graduate and professional students (16 percent in apartments and 23 percent in dormitory units). Columbia and Stanford, she says, house half or more of such students, and Stanford ambitiously hopes to accommodate 80 percent of the population in the foreseeable future. And those schools and MIT (which houses about one-third of its graduate students, but has more units in the pipeline) subsidize rents, while Harvard housing is made available at essentially market rates.

The view from the schools agrees with Huidekoper’s perspective. Much as he covets dissertation-completion funding, Peter Ellison of GSAS worries about the escalating cost of living in Cambridge versus living in the neighborhood of competing institutions. "It’s not just the cost," he says, "it’s about the availability in the vicinity of campus. That supply is just disappearing," as the stock of rental units has diminished during the past decade.

"Housing is killing us," says the Kennedy School’s McCarthy. During the last four fiscal years in the 1990s, the school made a deliberate effort to reduce graduates’ loan burden by restraining tuition, absorbing additional fees formerly added to term bills, and increasing aid. Despite initial gains, by fiscal year 2001, the average master’s graduate debt load had returned to $42,000—precisely the level of four years earlier. In partial response, the school is renovating a building on Garden Street for dormitory-style student rooms; that set-up is better suited to younger, single students than many of the larger family apartments Harvard rents elsewhere, McCarthy says. For international students with families, he says, the school is begging for access to Harvard-owned apartments like those in Peabody Terrace. The housing problem in general "could put us out of business," he says—and the solutions depend on centrally directed, Harvard-wide action, beyond the purview of any school.

All that makes construction of new, lower-cost, student housing urgent—a difficult proposition in Cambridge and Boston. (Ideally, new housing will be near campus, so students can have ready access to laboratories and libraries, and so they can be in the classrooms and offices where many of them serve as teaching fellows and research assistants—core elements in most financial-aid packages.) In the short term, Huidekoper suggests, coping with the housing crunch may mean more direct rental subsidies, and more careful allocation of available units across schools, to accommodate the neediest students.

And then there is the efficacy of more cash. Before becoming GSAS dean, Ellison chaired the committee that in 1998 recommended overhauling financial aid to guarantee doctoral students tuition and living stipends, including teaching fellowships, for most of their course of study and research, at a cost approximating $100,000 per student. He says that reform, combined with the substantial increases in grant funding the Faculty of Arts and Sciences has since made available (raising the GSAS aid budget to $30.3 million currently), got results. In the humanities and social sciences, the yield (acceptance of offers of admission) now hovers at 66 percent and 64 percent, respectively—4 and 8 percentage points better than in 1997, and nearing the margin over competitive graduate schools that the College enjoys relative to peer undergraduate institutions (15 to 20 percentage points). Competition for science graduate students remains sharp, he says, but recent changes in funding targeted there—to remove the teaching requirement in the first year of study, for instance, so students can better choose which laboratory to affiliate with—have raised the yield from 49 percent to 58 percent.

There are other tangible measures of success. Average student-loan burdens have been held down, to about $21,600, and the time it takes to complete a degree may be improving as students need to take on less outside work. Both are important factors, Ellison believes, in making it possible for graduates to pursue academic careers, rather than "law or business trajectories," for financial rather than intellectual reasons.

"Harvard’s attractions as an institution—the faculty, research facilities, libraries—are all a natural magnet for the best minds," he says. "Inadequate financial aid is a barrier, but if aid is adequate, we reap the rewards of the institution’s natural strengths."

From their less-advantaged perspective, deans of the public-service-oriented professional schools concur. The KSG’s McCarthy, who works with an aid budget of some $4 million annually, says that of the 600 two-year master’s students, just over half receive grants, averaging 58 percent of the tuition bill. Absent a massive infusion of aid funds, he says, the school is particularly eager to fund more of its public-service fellowships (there are 32 this year). They provide full tuition and a $7,000 stipend to students who pursue public-service careers for at least three years after graduation. That mechanism both attracts recruits to the school and launches them into public-sector jobs.

The education school, with an endowment of $303 million (about half that of the KSG, and larger only than those of the schools of design and dental medicine)—just one-fifth of it dedicated to scholarships—has had University help to meet pressing aid needs. Like the Kennedy School’s public-service fellowships, the GSE has targeted a handful of "presidential fellowships," funded by Massachusetts Hall; they guarantee entering doctoral students four years of tuition and fees, plus $12,500 stipends for the first three years of study—the first time GSE has been able to make multiyear offers. Of the improvements in students’ lives that GSAS has effected, Singer says, "We, too, would like to do that." Citing the current admissions yield, she says, "The school is still attractive, but it’s on the backs of our students."

Therein lies the greatest dilemma for schools like education and public health. The high costs of attending Harvard demand substantial financial sacrifice from many students who then can expect life-long low salaries. "It’s a pretty deadly package" for graduates, Singer says, and obviously a severe hindrance in raising funds from their alumni, the schools’ likeliest allies.

So the weaker "tubs" find themselves needing assistance from other parts of the Harvard community. During her introduction to the school, incoming education dean Ellen Condliffe Lagemann (see page 77) made explicit her understanding that President Summers would secure more funds, and he acknowledged that commitment. Beyond whatever additional funds the central administration might commit, the new dean and Summers will have to make GSE’s case to foundations and other Harvard alumni, such as business school graduates who during the University Campaign were important supporters of financial aid at other graduate and professional schools.

 

These are the issues Huidekoper and others must address as they devise plans to fulfill Summers’s vision of University-wide need-blind admissions and aid. At stake are the competitiveness of Harvard’s schools in attracting students, Harvard’s accessibility to the international community, the disparities among schools’ resources and differences in the total costs of degree programs, variances in student and family demographics, the quality of students’ experience while in residence, and—at least a little—leveling the financial playing field when career choices are made.

Nor are the stakes confined to Boston and Cambridge. As SPH dean Barry Bloom tells it, a faculty member has brought him a request from a former student who now works for a United Nations agency in Afghanistan, "than which few countries have greater needs." He has identified a couple of qualified physicians who could come to the United States for desperately needed public-health training. But, says Bloom, "I don’t have the resources to make that happen."