Free Harvard!

Fenster writes:

I admire Ron Unz a lot, read his blog-paper daily and support his position on bilingual education.  Alas I cannot warm all that much to his push to make Harvard tuition free.  He is running a slate committed to that end for the university’s Board of Overseers.

Rather than froth here I will just cut and paste my comment on the subject over at Unz.

Sorry I still don’t get it, the free tuition thing. I mean, I kind of get it from a narrow POV–that if you are filthy rich give up the ghost already. And maybe there’s a tinge of perverse Ivy pride in the organized movement to actually take action–i.e., maybe Ron and his Harvard-based team are still fixated on Harvard as the center of the world in some way, such that causing this change at Harvard will change the world too. I am not persuaded.

Is Harvard a hedge fund with a university out front? Yes. Could Harvard find a way to end tuition just from its unrestricted endowment or quasi-endowment? Probably, since it is so damn rich–though in fairness it is to be pointed out that if its spending rule is more or less reasonable all of the spendable income currently finds a home elsewhere, with the result that a major shift in expenditure patterns would be of consequence, and probably not easy.

You can argue I suppose that an expansion of tuition discount to 100% for all is a better expenditure than whatever else the money is currently being spent on. Maybe. True that a lot of higher ed spending is not mission critical, especially at places where the money is coming in over the transoms. But where is the argument that free tuition is–must be–a higher and better use of the (large) marginal dollars? That argument does not seem to me to have been made persuasively. The argument feels more like a punitive one–the kids finally getting even with the old man.

When you run the federal government’s net cost numbers, available in an online database, you find a strange phenomenon. Scrolling up from the bottom, from least expensive to most expensive schools in net price terms, you first encounter what you would expect: a passel of odd entities–little bible colleges, seminaries and the odd school committed to zero tuition. What is the first school of any consequence you come to in this cheap-to-expensive exercise? Harvard. Followed not long after by its brethren like Yale and Princeton (NYU, endowment-poor, comes out near the top of the list by contrast).

So the Ivies are already the cheapest “real” colleges in the country on a net basis–cheaper than Fordham, or Goucher or the University of Rhode Island. What is the actual benefit in terms of whatever metric you choose (equity, policy, educational attainment) of making it free for all? The most likely effect would be that the talented people from upper middle class families that now go on a paying basis would be relieved of the obligation to pay. The straight A student who is smart enough (or lucky enough, or connected enough) gets a windfall. His classmate with a nearly identical academic record but with less luck or without alumni parents pays through the nose at NYU. This is no way to run an education system.

So maybe this dust-up is not about equity at Harvard–I don’t think this measure would result in that—but could or should be about something else: pointing out that Harvard’s wealth creates educational contradictions that are difficult to solve given the way our higher education system is structured. Shining a light on inequities is perhaps a better argument for shining a light on Harvard. It is worth debating what Harvard–or the nation–does with the wealth set aside ostensibly for education.

I don’t think that is an easy argument. I am not sure where I would come down on it, since I see the various costs and benefits of the approach we have taken: schools compete for students, prestige and donations and let the chips fall where they may. We think of schools as having a public mission and delivering public goods–but at the same time we respect private property (including that of donors and the university itself) and private goods are on ample display.

That at least is a real discussion.

The question of whether Harvard should reform itself in the manner recommended may interest Harvard folks. It does not really interest me all that much.

I do think the bilingual education thing is a big deal.

Check out the NPR interview if you are interested.  Unz does seem to think the ripple effect of the announcement would be great.  But would it?  True, it might get the attention of some students who now think they can’t afford it–often talented students in flyover country that don’t know enough to know they could get in, as Caroline Hoxby’s research suggests.

Or it might not.  A talented working class white kid in Tulsa might or might not suddenly get attuned to the new possibilities opened up.  But keep in mind we are talking about a tiny, tiny number of people here, and the net difference to the world in trading out a couple of talented students for other talented students is not great.

How about the ripple effect?  What of other universities?  It’s nice that Harvard can afford free but a huge number of non-wealthy colleges are already maxed to the limit in terms of tuition discount, and it is eroding financial viability.  Unz thinks the Harvard announcement would not stress financial aid further but instead would create pressure to control costs.  Good luck with that.  There are a million weighty forces pushing back against higher education costs– eppur si muove.  The idea that an announcement by Harvard that it is abolishing tuition would suddenly cause higher education to stand up and take note (as opposed to pushing them to discount tuition more steeply) is just not credible.

Much of the discussion in the NPR interview veers from the topic of free tuition and wanders into other terrain, such as anti-Asian bias and the corrupting effect of legacy admissions and big donations.  But how does free tuition make a difference to those things at all?

If this is a big deal to Harvard alum bully for them and go for it.  I don’t think it warrants the dust -up it is getting.  In that regard it is just one more manifestation of our fixation on the Ivies as the leading edge of higher education.  Maybe it’s time for people, Fenster included, to just Shut Up About Harvard.

About Fenster

Gainfully employed for thirty years, including as one of those high paid college administrators faculty complain about. Earned Ph.D. late in life and converted to the faculty side. Those damn administrators are ruining everything.
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