$13,589 and growing

A Times Editorial
Published December 22, 2007

With an endowment of $34.9-billion, Harvard University has the financial wherewithal to open its doors to more students of limited means. But in reaching into the upper-middle class to provide tuition relief, the institution is also setting an example that extends beyond merely the elite universities. The cost of college should never be an insurmountable barrier to those who are academically ready.

The reality is that college tuition continues to rise faster than family income. In the past five years, it has jumped 35 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars - the largest amount since the College Board has been keeping track. At public universities, the average annual cost including room and board is now $13,589 a year. At private universities, it has reached $32,307.

As Harvard discovered, the old income standards for need-based student aid tended to create a middle- and upper-middle class void. Students from families with household incomes of less than $60,000 were granted free entrance, and wealthy students had the money. But those in the middle, even with incomes as high as $180,000, were finding the burden too great.

Similar pressures are felt by students pursuing higher education throughout the country. Even for those who find a way to pay for college, the cost often is translated into debt. According to the Project on Student Debt, the average graduating senior left campus last year owing $19,646.

Though Congress did move this fall to cut interest rates on Stafford loans and increase Pell Grants for low-income students, those steps are small ones at best. The larger reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which has the potential to offer more generous aid packages, is still tied up in Congress.

In announcing the increased aid at Harvard, president Drew Gilpin Faust spoke to basic values. "Education is the engine that makes American democracy work," she said. "And it has to work, and that means people have to have access."

Faust is right, and it is the ideal to which all universities should aspire.