New Record editor-in-chief Kevin Waite ’09 provides a solid overview of the debate surrounding recent financial aid changes at Harvard and Yale. Read the whole thing but, for now, I just want to comment on the opening sentence.

Beginning next year, a Harvard student whose family earns $180,000 will only have to pay $18,000 of the school’s $45,600 sticker price.

Always bad to start a news article with an untrue statement. Former Record editor Mike Needham ’04 must be weeping from his aerie high in the rapidly imploding Giuliani campaign. I am almost positive that Harvard has never made this claim, although they have said things like this in a misleading fashion. Shame on them!

First, do you really believe that a first year student in the class of 2012 with $300,000 in a 529 fund which can only be used for education expenses is going to get away with only paying Harvard $18,000? Hah! The student/family would, of course, like to save that money for graduate school or devote it (after penalty?) to some other expense. (What are the rules on unused money from 529s?) The key distinction that Waite misses is between money which belongs to the student and money which belongs to the parents. Harvard has done nothing, I think, about the former. If you have non-trivial amounts of money in your 18 year-old name, Harvard will want it. All of it. See previous discussion here and here. (Click on those links if you are a new reader. Good stuff!)

Second, there is a difference between paying $18,000 on average and “only” $18,000 at most. Harvard wants people to be confused, as Waite is, about whether the $18,000 is a maximum for all families with $180,000 in income or an average across all of them. Do you really think that a billionaire family with low income one year will get away with only spending $18,000? No. Harvard wants to know both how much money you made this year and how much wealth you have. Note how Harvard phrases things:

Harvard’s new financial aid policy dramatically reduces the amount families with incomes below $180,000 will be expected to pay. Families with incomes above $120,000 and below $180,000 and with assets typical for these income levels will be asked to pay 10 percent of their incomes.

I predict that a lot of families with incomes in this range will be quite upset about how Harvard defines “typical” in that sentence.

But those are quibbles. Waite’s article is still worth reading. And, can we finally agree that it is intellectually dishonest for schools like Harvard (and Williams) to pretend that they don’t give merit aid? If you define “need” to include families with incomes of $180,000, then you are no longer speaking English.

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