Harvard charges tuition not because it has to, but because it feels like it. That, at least, is an argument some critics of the world’s richest university have used. Harvard’s endowment, which was valued at $29.2 billion at the end of the last fiscal year, is greater than the gross domestic products of about 100 countries and is arguably large enough for Harvard to be free for all undergraduates.

Sarah Royce
Illustration by Sam Butler

As things stand now, Harvard already is free for students whose families make less than $40,000 a year. Even a full tuition scholarship covers only two-thirds of the cost of a Harvard education, but with the rest covered by endowment income, we shouldn’t feel too bad for the budding masters of the universe in Cambridge.

That’s an extreme example, of course. But the story isn’t much different at other Ivy League schools – or at a host of other private institutions. Long reliant on wealthy alumni and other private donors to supplement revenue from tuition, most private universities have built sizable endowments.

The story is a bit different at state schools. Historically, most state universities were founded and funded on the premise that the public would provide the bulk of the necessary funds. Between federal land grants and state taxation, public funds covered most of the start-up and operational costs in the early days of public universities; at some schools, such as the City College of New York, higher education was long provided to students free of charge.

Such generous support for state universities is now little more than a historical curiosity. There’s an increasing societal consensus in recent decades that the costs of higher education should be borne by those who benefit most directly – the students themselves. Additionally, the continuing appeal of anti-tax, anti-government political rhetoric ensures that politicians who are looking to cut something in their state’s budget to fund yet another round of tax cuts will invariably slice away at appropriations for public universities.

The effect has been drastic, particularly at elite public universities like the University of Wisconsin at Madison, the University of Virginia – and our own university. While the nominal sticker price of tuition at these universities is less than tuition at comparable private schools (at least for in-state students), public universities that lack large endowments and an engrained culture of alumni giving simply can’t compete when it comes to financial aid. The paradoxical result, for many students, is that after considering financial aid packages, a private university with a sticker price of perhaps $33,000 a year is often cheaper than a comparable state school.

Public universities are probably doing their sincere best to offer financial aid. The University of Michigan, for instance, makes sure to increase financial aid funds along with each tuition increase, and its administrators are proud of the M-PACT program to replace some loans with grants for low-income students. The amount of funds available, however, makes M-PACT look more like a public relations effort than a serious financial aid program.

Stymied by this lack of resources, public universities are fighting back the only way they know how – by taking after their richer private counterparts in launching huge capital campaigns. Our university is nearing the completion of its $2.5-billion Michigan Difference campaign. The University of Virginia recently launched a $3 billion campaign of its own.

Eventually, these “privately funded public universities” may build up the endowments needed to offer more comprehensive financial aid. But for many of today’s students who will graduate with tens of thousands of dollars in debt, that day won’t come soon enough.

Christopher Zbrozek is an LSA senior and a member of the Daily’s editorial board.

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