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The professional aspirations of Ron Unz have run the gamut from an unsuccessful campaign for governor of California in 1994 to an entrepreneurial turn that saw him found Wall Street Analytics.
His conservative leanings make him perhaps an unlikely proponent of free college at Harvard, but he’s proposing just that.
Unz is running for the Board of Overseers with four other alums — including Green Party presidential nominee Ralph Nader — on a ticket to eliminate undergraduate tuition.
Unz is the most outspoken of the bunch when describing his motivations for running for the board. He unapologetically calls attention to the fact that Harvard has a massive endowment yet enjoys a tax exemption as an educational institution.
Harvard’s endowment at the end of last year was $37.6 billion, the largest university endowment in the world.
“It’s sort of like if Goldman Sachs bought a community college and declared itself tax-exempt,” Unz told Business Insider.
Unz’s decision to run for the board and try to change Harvard’s tuition policy developed slowly over a decade, he said. Unz graduated from Harvard in 1983, double majoring in physics and ancient history. Year after year following his graduation, he said, Harvard fund-raisers would visit him in Palo Alto, California, asking whether he was willing to donate money to the university.
He engaged in friendly discussion with the fund-raisers, he said. But he always made the point that given Harvard’s enormous endowment, he didn’t think it made any sense for people to donate to the university.
He compared it to any other wealthy company.
“I use Google all the time, and I think Google’s a great company and has great technology, but if Google asked me for a donation, I’d say Google has more money than I do,” he told Business Insider.
He decided to run for the board last year on a platform of abolishing tuition at Harvard, a move he thinks would make the school more attractive to students from low-income families, increasing diversity. He said that in addition to racial diversity he’s targeting other less talked about measures like geographic and socioeconomic diversity.
He’s also aiming to bring more transparency to admissions at Harvard, claiming wealthy families can “buy their children a place at Harvard.”
He calls it “the Harvard price” and says families with the right connections can give the university “a few million dollars” and gain access for their child into Harvard.
It’s an allegation that is echoed in Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Daniel Golden’s book, “The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges — and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates.”
Golden says admissions decisions at elite universities do not come down to merit but instead are a marketplace in which wealthy families can buy a spot for their children for the right price.
Unz’s critics feel differently about his aims, arguing that they are misplaced and fail to recognize the already substantial contribution Harvard makes toward tuition.
Harvard provides generous financial aid and has awarded more than $1.4 billion to undergraduates in the past decade, Jeff Neal, a Harvard representative, told The New York Times.
Harvard also notes online that “approximately 70% of our students receive some form of aid, and about 60% receive need-based scholarships and pay an average of $12,000 per year.”
Critics of Unz also argue that the university doesn’t have the ability to use endowment money in the same way it uses funds from tuition. The endowment is not like “one big bank account” that can be drawn from for any purpose, Robert Reischauer, an economist and former senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation, argued in The Times.
But Unz disagrees with their rebuttal, claiming the financial-aid office still misses a huge population of mostly low-income people who have no idea they’re eligible for free or discounted tuition. These people who aren’t plugged into to the messaging that Harvard is “need blind” miss out on the opportunity, he argues, as they never even apply.
“Abolishing tuition at Harvard is a very shocking idea when people first hear about it,” he said. “But tuition is such a negligible part of Harvard’s income that they could very easily abolish it.”
A Harvard representative was not immediately available for comment on this article.
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