Commentary Magazine


The (Moderately) Rich Get Richer

Harvard’s financial aid “reforms,” announced Monday, are great news for anyone who thinks that what Harvard needs is not a revived core curriculum, but more students from the upper class. Under Harvard’s new policy, families with incomes between $60,000 and $180,000 will have to pay no more than 10 percent of their incomes in tuition. Since the 2006 median income in the U.S. was about $48,000, the benefits of these “reforms” will go to the rich.

Yes, $180,000 isn’t as much as it seems if you live in New York City. But Harvard already has lots of kids from New York City: that’s not the kind of diversity it’s lacking. And yes, Harvard is “need-blind,” and it gives generous support to students from families below the median. But there are only so many spots to go around. Making it easier for the rich to accept an offer from Harvard will increase their matriculation rate. To compensate, Harvard will have to make fewer offers to the poor.

By coincidence, Harvard’s announcement came less than three months after the Senate Finance Committee expressed interest in forcing large university endowments to pay out 5 percent per year. But then the entire question of financial aid at Harvard (and Yale) is a farce: it would cost only $238 million—about 1 percent of an endowment that gained $5 billion in fiscal 2007—to pay tuition, room, and board for all Yale College students this year. Financial aid is about increasing the size of the applicant pool so you can turn more of them down, and win the prestige that comes with enhanced selectivity.

By design, what stops students from attending Harvard isn’t the cost: it’s Harvard’s Admissions Office, which, like Yale’s, turns down nine out of ten applicants. And here those on the fringes of the system—which is not quite the same thing as being poor—are at a serious disadvantage, because simply being smart is not enough to get in. You need to demonstrate your social conscience, and to develop as many weird interests as possible. The latest fad, Alex Williams reported in the New York Times over the weekend, is squash, which, as one parent put it, “just helps your admissions chances.”

The last thing the Senate should do is to try to fix Harvard: the unintended consequences are bound to be catastrophic. But Harvard’s “reforms,” and its admissions policies, are of a piece with our national obsession: helping the well-off. From preserving Social Security, which transfers wealth from the young to the old; to expanding SCHIP into the upper-middle class by raising taxes on tobacco, a vice of the poor; to providing relief for homeowners who sought out the loans that got them into the subprime mortgage “crisis,” the Left (and all too frequently the Right) panders to the rich while arguing that what it seeks is social justice for the poor.

There are lots of good arguments for small government. But the best one is that the bigger government gets, the more favors it does for the elite, and the more harm it does to the American promise of opportunity and equal treatment under law. In a recent opinion, Chief Justice Roberts wrote that “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” Like the rest of us, Harvard needs to remember that the best way to help the poor is to stop helping the rich.