This last Saturday night I took a red-eye flight to Boston accompanied by an all-important carry-on bag, containing some thirty pounds of signed nomination petitions for our Free Harvard/Fair Harvard campaign for the Harvard Board of Overseers.
With potentially major changes in the structure of American higher education hanging in the balance, I could not possibly trust Fedex or any other service for the safe Monday arrival of our petitions at the 17 Quincy Street Harvard offices, and hand-delivery seemed the only secure option. I’d originally planned my trip when huge winter storms had led to thousands of flight cancellations along the East Coast, so I separately booked both Saturday night and Sunday morning flights, with an eye towards possibly buying a last-minute third ticket to some other city along the Eastern Seaboard just in case snow blocked all incoming flights to Boston’s Logan Airport.
Fortunately, by the time our signature-gathering was complete and I boarded my JetBlue flight out of SFO, the Great Winter Storm of 2016 was merely a fading memory and both I and my precious cargo arrived without delay or incident.
Under normal circumstances I would have been loath to risk turning in our Harvard petitions on the last day available, Monday, February 1st, but our Overseer ballot qualification drive had been far more difficult and challenging than outside observers might expect. The number of signatures each of us required was hardly onerous—just 201 from among the 320,000 holders of Harvard degrees—but only physical signatures on special Harvard-printed nomination petitions were allowed, and for various reasons we had started our signature drive far later than I had originally planned. Excluding the delivery time of the blank petitions from Harvard itself, we had just a couple of weeks to locate our potential supporters, fedex them our nomination petitions, and receive their signed petitions in the Priority Mail return envelopes we provided. Naturally, most of the signatures arrived in the last couple of days, and late Saturday afternoon I was still nervously awaiting the day’s mail delivery just before leaving for the airport.
Despite all our concerns, we easily met our goals, and my heavy satchel on the flight to Boston Saturday night contained around 285 total signatures for most of our individual candidacies, providing a large safety margin over the required number. Virtually all our signers appeared absolutely legitimate, and unless the Harvard administrators choose to disqualify huge numbers of those alumni signatures on unreasonably trivial grounds, our slate will appear on the next Harvard Overseer ballot, with potentially major consequences. So we have now passed the first hurdle, though not without considerable nail-biting along the way.
Because I arrived in Cambridge very early Sunday morning and the Harvard offices did not open until Monday, I decided to spend the day trying to pad our numbers by doing some personal petitioning in Harvard Square and at various places around the university, having brought along some signs, large charts, and hand-outs to support such an effort.
During a full day of energetic petitioning, my success rate ran 100% among those who stopped in curiosity, asked questions, then declared themselves to be holders of Harvard degrees eligible to sign. Unfortunately, that total came to merely two individuals, as a cold New England Sunday deterred the busy and the sensible from dawdling in conversation with some obvious political crackpot sermonizing on Harvard’s vast wealth and absurdly promising to abolition Harvard tuition as a consequence.
A couple of pleasant young Crimson reporters also spent an hour or so reporting on my petitioning efforts and interviewing me, with a picture taken by their staff photographer and displayed on the front-page of their Monday newspaper accurately capturing the somewhat amusing street scene. Frankly, I doubt if even a single passer-by that day actually believed that my remarkably quixotic proposal had the slightest prospect of actual real-world success.
Still, a much larger number of current Harvard students or casual visitors did stop, listen, and take away some of our materials, and of these individuals not one opposed our project, with the great majority being enthusiastic supporters. So the secondary goal of my petitioning—to gauge the political temperature in the Harvard community—proved much more encouraging and successful.
On Monday morning, I waited in my local hotel for the fedex deliveries of those petitions signed too late to reach me on Saturday in California, then took a taxi and lugged my heavy bag of petitions to the Harvard offices for delivery to the friendly staff located there, receiving a signed receipt in return.
I then picked up a couple of copies of the Crimson issue featuring my local petitioning efforts, as well as President Drew Faust’s sharp rebuttal to our proposals, and went to have a cup of coffee with John S. Rosenberg, editor of Harvard Magazine. Just a few days earlier, I had been stunned by the sudden appearance of his remarkably long (9,000 words), thorough, and even-handed article on our Free Harvard/Fair Harvard campaign, and I was very glad to have an opportunity to meet the author himself and explain some of my forthcoming plans for the coming months. Afterwards I took a taxi to WBUR, Boston’s local NPR station, which had invited me to do a long in-studio interview segment on our campaign, which I think went quite well.
The voter base for our Overseer campaign consists of active Harvard alumni, and these individuals receive Harvard Magazine, probably pay quite a bit of attention to stories that run in the Crimson, and are heavily concentrated in the Greater Boston area, often listening to the local NPR station. Taken together, these sorts of media outlets are exactly the ones that help shape the perceptions of our potential voters, and so far I think their coverage of our efforts has been exemplary—probing, sometimes tough, but generally extremely fair. I suspect there will be many, many more stories about our campaign and the issues we are raising before the Overseer election results are finally announced in June.
What, then, of the issues themselves? For me, one considerable surprise has been just how much the Harvard Administration opposition to our campaign has focused on the “Free Harvard” issue, with the university spokesmen and its top officials repeatedly claiming that our proposal to abolish college tuition is completely unnecessary since Harvard already provides very generous financial aid, and also financially impossible or at least very burdensome and difficult.
In the original New York Times article, Harvard Spokesman Jeff Neal had claimed that legal restrictions on Harvard endowment funds made our proposal a non-starter. Former Senior Fellow of the Harvard Corporation Robert Reischauer made a similar point in an NYT letter to the editor. In fact, the Harvard Crimson article featuring President Drew Faust’s response was actually entitled “Faust Condemns Free Tuition Proposal from Outside Overseers Ticket” and my WBUR interviewer cited further statements from Neal along similar lines.
But despite the weighty credentials and elite credibility of these individuals, I believe the facts are very much on the other side.
Let us first consider whether our proposal is even legally and financially possible. As I have repeatedly pointed out, the university’s overall investment income averages some twenty-five times the size of its net college tuition revenue, and none of these Harvard officials have ever disputed my claim. The sheer magnitude of this disparity is effectively illustrated in a simple chart I have widely distributed:
Now it is perfectly true that a large portion of the Harvard endowment is bound by various donor restrictions, and according to the NPR interviewer, Neal claimed the figure was 70%, which does not seem unreasonable to me. However, that still leaves 30% of the endowment income as completely unrestricted, and since an allocation of merely 4% would be sufficient to abolish tuition, I cannot see any resulting difficulty. Furthermore, roughly half of all new Harvard donations each year are completely unrestricted, and this sum alone would easily be enough to swamp the costs now covered by tuition. I simply cannot understand the argument that abolishing tuition is financially or legally difficult, let alone impossible.
Meanwhile, what of Harvard’s other argument, that the current system serves the cause of financial equity by only soaking the wealthy while protecting the less affluent? It is endlessly claimed that today’s exceptionally complex system of financial aid means that only millionaires and such actually pay the stated costs of over $60,000 per year, while less affluent families are completely insulated from any resulting financial hardship.
To some extent this is certainly true. Families with incomes of $65,000 and below may send their children to Harvard completely free of charge, though I personally wonder just how many such American families are actually aware of this, rather than casually hear about a Harvard list-price of $60,000 per year and never even consider applying. But what about families with somewhat higher incomes? Is Harvard’s very complex—and totally secret—financial aid formula really as well-designed and equitable as its top university officials endlessly proclaim?
As it happens, Harvard provides a convenient “Net Price Calculator” on its website, useful for determining the cost of attendance based on one’s financial situation (though an NYT columnist has harshly criticized Harvard for using various software tricks to block any “comparison shopping” against its competitors).
Therefore, let us consider a very simple case, namely that of married couple, both longtime New York City public schoolteachers, having one child who is smart and talented enough to have been accepted at Harvard College.
Now NYC is an extremely expensive place to live, with the local cost-of-living perhaps almost twice the national average. The local teachers unions are strong and ensure a solid income for their members, with a base salary of at least nearly $93,000 for career teachers of 22 years service or longer; that may sound like a lot, but is more like $45,000 or $50,000 per year in a less expensive part of the country. Therefore, a pair of such public school teachers has a combined salary income of roughly $185,000 per year. Let us further suppose that over many years of diligent effort they have managed to accumulate (non-retirement) cash savings and investments of $200,000, which generates annual investment income of an extra $5,000 per year. I would hardly regard such a middle-class couple as being part of America’s wealthy elite.
Harvard apparently disagrees. Plugging these exact numbers into the Harvard Net Price Calculator indicates that those NYC public schoolteachers would be expected to provide a parental contribution of $44,000 per year, or $176,000 over the four years. So they may indeed choose to send their son or daughter to Harvard just so long as they are willing to spend almost their entire life savings for that privilege. Is this financially equitable?
What about a somewhat different case. Suppose over the years that same couple of NYC school teachers had encountered serious financial problems or unexpected expenses, perhaps medical bills beyond their insurance coverage, and as a result had no significant personal savings when their son received his Golden Ticket of an acceptance letter to Harvard. Surely, under such circumstances, Harvard would cover all the costs.
Apparently not. If we plug zero savings and zero investment income into the handy Harvard Calculator, we find the university still requires such parents to contribute $135,000 over four years. Presumably, it expects them to go massively into personal debt or sell their kidneys or (more realistically) take out a second mortgage on their home or apartment. Obviously, the most likely scenario is that they decide that a Harvard education is totally unaffordable to the non-wealthy, and instead send their son or daughter to a local state college. Meanwhile, Harvard remains totally mystified why such a large fraction of its current students come from wealthy families.
Now in the cases we examined, a total four-year parental contribution of $176,000 or even $135,000 surely seems like a huge amount of money to that family of NYC public school teachers. But how much do such sums matter to Harvard itself?
Well, over the last few years, Harvard’s endowment investment income—excluding all new donations—has averaged about $3.2 billion per year. That’s $9 million per day, or $365,000 per hour. So the insurmountable obstacle of $135,000 it would demand from that family of NYC public school teachers in difficult financial circumstances represents roughly 22 minutes of Harvard’s average ordinary investment income. 22 minutes of investment income. “Let them eat cake”…
It’s also important to remember that while those NYC public school teachers pay a huge variety of often heavy taxes—federal income taxes, social security taxes, state taxes, city taxes, sales taxes, property taxes—-Harvard University is totally tax-exempt, which is one reason its annual investment income is so extremely large. Years ago, I wrote an article pointing out that Harvard had actually become one of the world’s largest hedge-funds, with some sort of small school or college or something attached off to one side for tax reasons. Right now, it looks like Harvard and its peers will remain tax-exempt indefinitely. But I really think it’s quite unseemly for a tax-exempt hedge-fund to continue gouging families of public school teachers of their life-savings, while simultaneously denigrating them as members of America’s wealthy elite.
I suspect that in a few months time, the vast majority of the Harvard alumni who vote in the Overseers election will agree with me. And soon thereafter Harvard will indeed become free.