As the USC College Democrats and USC College Republicans addressed the rise in the cost of higher education Monday night, it echoed a greater national conversation — one which prompted even further dispute following the call for free undergraduate tuition by candidates for the Harvard Board of Overseers. The slate argues that given the university’s multi-billion dollar endowment, tuition should be free for Harvard’s undergraduates — a move that would make college more affordable and thus prompt more highly qualified applicants from diverse backgrounds.
Though providing free undergraduate education for all students regardless of their financial situation is impractical, universities with large endowments such as Harvard can and should do more to make college affordable for those students who need assistance the most — starting by installing free tuition for students from lower-income brackets.
In 2015, Harvard’s endowment reached a record $37.6 billion after posting a 5.8 percent return. The endowment — which is estimated to be equal to that of an average country’s annual gross domestic product — is composed of more than 12,000 funds. Financial aid for students is among Harvard’s largest funding categories.
Yet, like USC, this has not stopped Harvard from increasing its tuition to rates that far outpace inflation. In 2014, the university announced a $2,200 tuition hike, making it the largest tuition increase the university had seen in seven years.
With tuition increasing at unprecedented rates, free tuition for students from low-income families is not so far-fetched. In 2015, Stanford University — which boasts a $22.2 billion endowment — announced that it would begin offering free tuition to admitted students coming from families earning less than $125,000 annually. For families earning below $65,000, the university said it would throw in the cost of room and board.
Though Harvard is not exactly far behind its West Coast counterpart — it provides free tuition for families earning less than $65,000 annually — it and other universities with large endowments can do better. According to The New York Times, some lawmakers have proposed requiring colleges boasting endowments of $1 billion or more to dedicate at least a quarter of their annual earnings of tuition assistance. Such a move would not only address college affordability for lower-income families, but it would also ensure that universities’ endowments remain intact.
Opponents of free tuition do have an important point — a university’s endowment is not a piggy bank that can be dipped into when funds run dry. An endowment represents the amount of money and assets that are donated to a university and its purpose is to remain a permanent source of funding through the investment income it yields. But that does not mean universities with significant endowments cannot do more to dedicate their resources to financial assistance for those who need it most, without liquidating their endowments in the process.
Yasmeen Serhan is a senior majoring in international relations. “Point/Counterpoint” runs Tuesdays.