Cantabs Can Tabs

Okay, nobody except an obscurantist like me would write a headline like that. Those matriculated at or graduated from Harvard University are called Cantabs, derived from Cambridge, where fair Harvard is located, which in England was once known by the Latin Cantabrigia. Hence, Cantabrigians (the residents) or Cantabs for short. Tabs in this context is an ironic twist on the notion of a bar bill, like the massive tuition/room/board fee is akin to an $8 well drink.

Anyhoo, Harvard has opted to rejigger its financial aid in a way that would have once saved my family literally tens of thousands of dollars had I gone there rather than to my alma mater, Yale. Instead of complicated formulas involving loans, home equity, and other factors, Harvard is using a simple formula to handle the $45,620 cost of room and board (07-08 year).

Families with incomes under $60,000 pay nothing: no loans, no bursary (student work requirement), nothing. From $60,000 to $120,000, it's a sliding scale from 0 up to 10 percent of income per year. from $120,000 to $180,000, it's a flat 10 percent. For families that make over $200,000 a year, financial aid isn't out of the question when extenuating circumstances are involved, too, such as multiple siblings attending university at the same time.

Fundamentally, this levels the playing field for access by the smartest kids to one of the most elite institutions. Harvard had already set a threshold of zero fees for families making up to $60,000 per year and reduced fees up to $80,000, and they saw a rapid jump by 33 percent over three years of matriculating students in those income ranges.

More than half of current students will pay less as a result--which still tells you something about the demographics of the college.

One of the more interesting parts of this announcement is how little, relative to the size and growth of Harvard's endowment, that this change represents. The institution now subsidizes tuition to the tune of $98 million per year; the added aid will move that figure up $22m to $120m. Harvard's endowment is $35 billion, and it increased 23 percent over the last year. Which means that the difference in cost was a day's worth of increased endowment including inflation in the last yearr.

As someone with two children who would start college about 14 years from now, I have a little less trepidation about the cost. If Harvard has stepped up to the plate, stating as one reason their desire to offer an education that to the majority of Americans (90 percent in this case) would be comparable to fees paid at top state schools, then other colleges with hefty endowments will be sure to follow. There's also a great fundraising pitch to be made here: If you haven't given before, here's a reason to open your wallets--set up a special fund to underwrite this at [your institution's name here].

I was a grateful and huge recipient of financial aid at Yale. We always had food on the table, and owned a house, but times were rough when I started school. My folks worked awfully hard, and I worked jobs whenever I was home for spring break (two weeks at Yale), winter break, and over the summer, as well as varying term-time jobs. Tuition, room, and board totaled over $100,000 for my four years (86-90), and I left with $15,000 in loans that I paid back in under 10 years. My family had  to contribute even with our low income, although my dad's business picked up during my time at school, so it wasn't the same load each year.

Still, even inflation adjusted, I would have gotten a free ride and no loans at Harvard, and it would have affected my choice of schools to apply to. Given that I was accepted at every school I applied to, and I did quite like Boston and Cambridge when I'd visited it, I always had my heart set on Yale. But in the same circumstances, I think Harvard would have won. And I expect a lot of other students and parents will make the same decision.

Time to step up to the plate, Ivies.