Harvard’s “Remarkable Stinginess”

Speaking of reasons Harvard alums shouldn’t give to the school, here’s Kevin Carey in a Monday column in The Chronicle:

Harvard spent the money on many things. But not a dollar went to increasing the number of undergraduates it chose to bless with a Harvard education. In 1990 the university welcomed slightly more than 1,600 students to its freshman class. In 2008, $32-billion later, it enrolled slightly more than 1,600 freshmen.

That is remarkable stinginess. Harvard undergraduate degrees are immensely valuable, conferring a lifetime of social capital and prestige. The university receives many more highly qualified applicants than it chooses to admit. Because the existing class includes underqualified children of legacies, rich people, politicians, celebrities, and others who benefit from the questionable Ivy League admissions process, Harvard could presumably increase the size of its entering class by, say, 50 percent while improving the overall academic quality of the students it admits.

Granted, it would cost money to teach more students. The university would need to invest in land and buildings and professors. But that’s precisely what the university spent the endowment on. The Faculty of Arts and Sciences alone expanded by more than 125 positions over the past decade and increased spending by hundreds of millions of dollars. The university gobbled up nearby land and erected a collection of handsome new buildings, creating over six million square feet of new space since 2000 alone. Yet none of the brilliant new people and buildings and land were used to give more undergrads a Harvard education.

This is a starkly simple, informative way to look at the idea of an endowment and what it should be used for.

Jesse Singal

Jesse Singal is a former opinion writer for The Boston Globe and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. He is currently a master's student at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Policy. Follow him on Twitter at @jessesingal.