Harvard aid plan offers tuition discounts

One of the nation's elite universities eases financial burden on middle-class families.

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Jessica Kelly for CNN

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (CNN) -- Middle-income families with students in many of the nation's top universities are getting some relief.

Harvard University is among a handful of schools announcing major expansions of financial aid that will reduce tuition bills by thousands of dollars - even for families earning six figures.

Bill Fitzsimmons, dean of Harvard's Admissions, says "this represents a 30 to 50 percent cut in what we were asking before."

Full tuition including room and board at Harvard comes in at over $45,000. Families earning under $60,000 already send their students for free.

Under the new plan, families earning between $60,000 and $120,000 will pay a percentage of their income, rising to 10 percent. Families with incomes between $120,000 and $180,000 will have to pay 10 percent of their incomes.

Diane Belmonte, whose son attends Harvard, says, "It was a relief. It just sounded too good to be true."

Belmonte's son, Paul, is a sophomore at Harvard. Diane is a school teacher and her husband, Gerry, drives a delivery truck for UPS. This new plan will save them about $1,000 a month. Gerry Belmonte tells CNN, "It means if the dishwasher breaks, you don't have to worry about it. If you have a car repair, you don't have to worry about it."

Harvard will also replace student loans with grants and take home equity out of its wealth calculation for financial aid. Overall, Harvard said a typical family earning $120,000 would pay about $12,000 next year, down from $19,000 under current award policies. For a typical family earning $180,000, the bill would drop to $18,000, from more than $30,000.

Fitzsimmons estimates, "You end up paying less to go to Harvard or the same as it would cost you to go to a flagship pubic university."

Harvard University officials said their surveys showed even students from well-off families were feeling the pinch by having to work outside jobs and not being able to fully engage in the life of the university. Harvard officials also worried prospective applicants were scared away by the school's cost.

Fitzsimmons said the program will cost more than $20 million.

"This is a very costly program. But I think without it, we're not fulfilling our basic mission of reaching out to talented students from every background," he said.

The announcement is the latest of a string by well-endowed universities that are trying to combat perceptions they are unaffordable with major initiatives to reduce the price students actually pay.

A handful of schools, starting with Princeton in 2001, had eliminated all student loans. Tufts, Amherst, University of Pennsylvania and Duke are among other top schools easing the burden on middle-income students.

There are critics. Researchers at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity say Harvard's $35 billion endowment should mean even lower costs for students.

Lynne Munson told CNN, "The donors are essentially saying Harvard should be free for everyone. It should be truly accessible. And personally I have to say I think that Harvard should be ashamed to be charging anyone tuition."

Fitzsimmons maintains the initiative is a step in the right direction, "This is the clearest signal we can give that we do not want to have someone's economic background to get in the way of thinking about Harvard. Like everything else this is something we'll evaluate every year to see where we can do more."

Diane Belmonte is grateful for the discount on what she calls the American dream, "I still don't believe it sometimes when I drop him off. It's like, he's really at Harvard?" To top of page

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