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Harvard University is upping its financial aid for working and middle class students*. They are, as the Wall Street Journal puts it, "responding to criticism that elite colleges have become unaffordable for ordinary Americans."

Here are the bones of the plan:

The Ivy League school said undergraduates whose families earn up to $180,000 would be asked to pay 10% or less of their incomes annually for the cost of Harvard, which this year totals $45,456. The university said the initiative would reduce the cost of attending the college by one-third to one-half, making the price comparable to in-state tuition and fees at top public universities.

For example, the university said a family making $120,000 will be asked to pay about $12,000 for a child to attend Harvard College, compared with more than $19,000 under current student-aid policies. A family making $180,000 would pay $18,000, down from $30,000.

At lower income levels, families would pay a smaller percentage of income, declining to zero at $60,000 a year. Harvard said it would eliminate loans from all financial-aid packages and no longer consider home equity in calculating eligibility. (Read the text of the Harvard statement.)

"We want all students who might dream of a Harvard education to know that it is a realistic and affordable option," said Harvard President Drew Faust.

I find this fascinating for several reasons. First, it implies that the children whose parents only make $175,000 a year in joint income are among Harvard's underprivileged. And second, this seems grossly unlikely to make any actual difference in Harvard's enrollment, or indeed its costs. The actual discrimination comes from the fact that it is very hard to attend Harvard unless your parents have a great deal of money and social capital to pour into the task of turning you into "Harvard material".

When I was at Penn, a friend who actually qualified as a proletarian, and whose proletarian consciousness would have been rated "Exceeds expectations" by the Comintern Membership Committee, indignantly informed me that almost half our class was the product of private schools.

"So?" I asked innocently.

"So those schools are less than 2% of the total American school system," he said. As far as I can tell, that disparity has only grown in the intervening years; thanks to unfavorable demographics, getting into college now is much more competitive than it was in my day. As long as you're drawing half your student body from schools that charge tens of thousands of dollars a year in tuition, playing with your financial aid package is the poverty-fighting equivalent of sending a complementary fruit basket to the local orphanage at Christmas.


* Actual middle class students, not the children of corporate lawyers living in Manhattan who consider that an income of $500,000 a year puts them smack in the middle of the proletariat.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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