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The Citizen

Attracting the best and the brightest: The HKS philosophy of financial aid

By Alexi White, Opinions Editor, MPP ‘13

At first, Mark Truman wasn’t sure leaving his small test preparation business and going back to school was the right choice. But when he scrutinized the Kennedy School’s Master in Public Policy program, he was attracted by its interdisciplinary nature, the emphasis on service and idealism, and of course the Harvard name.

“I had family and career concerns about coming to HKS,” Truman said. “The choice for me was not between two colleges, but rather between attending HKS or not attending at all.”

Which is why being awarded a Dean’s Fellowship helped tip the scale toward attending. Truman, now in his first year, is unsure as to whether he would have made the same choice without it.

“It certainly made it easier, but to say to what degree is really challenging,”

Stephanie Streletz is the director of student financial services at HKS. She’s proud that financial assistance has doubled to approximately $22 million since 2004, including aid from donors, cost-sharing partnerships, university-wide funds, and the internal budget. And that doesn’t include student loans co-signed by the university or the cost of the Loan Repayment Assistance Program for domestic loans.

“Financial assistance is one of the school’s first priorities,” Streletz says. “People have been laid off so that aid doesn’t need to be cut.”

Domestic and international students in the class of 2011 borrowed an average of $58,050 and $22,550 respectively to cover the cost of their degree. Streletz concedes these numbers show there is still much room for improvement and points to Harvard’s upcoming capital campaign as a potential source of new funds.

Part of the reason some students have to borrow so much is that only twenty percent of all financial assistance is distributed solely on the basis of need.  Instead, the vast majority of funds are used to recruit top students who demonstrate leadership potential, academic achievement, a commitment to public service, and a “uniqueness factor.”

“It is a strong message from the school that merit is more important than need. We’re looking for the best and the brightest,” said Streletz. “Each year in our analysis, the rate of acceptance from those offered aid is consistently higher than those who were not.”

Natasha Warikoo, a professor at the Harvard School of Graduate Education with expertise in higher education administration, expressed surprise that HKS relies so heavily on merit-based assistance.

“People who avail themselves of merit aid tend to be able to afford school already,” said Warikoo. “There has been a rise in merit aid among second-tier universities to improve their status, but I would assume the Kennedy School is seen as one of the top policy schools in the country.”

One of the Kennedy School’s main competitors, the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton, has a different philosophy of financial assistance. Its small student body and comparatively large endowment allows for a greater level of per-student aid. Covering all students’ tuition costs is the first priority; the remainder goes to those with the greatest need.

According to the Wilson School’s website, its goal is reducing student debt so that graduates can afford to take jobs in the public sector. It may be why in 2010, only 16% of the Wilson School’s MPA graduates took positions in the private sector compared to 29% of MPP graduates at HKS.

John Templeton, coordinator of the Wilson School’s admissions office, said equity concerns are the chief reason for the focus on reducing need. He said he knows of the occasional student who chooses HKS after receiving a large scholarship, but that the Wilson School doesn’t feel it has trouble recruiting top students.

“Quite honestly, we don’t lose enough of our top ranked admits for financial reasons,” Templeton said.

For Truman, attracting a diverse set of students with unique strengths and experiences is worthwhile and will serve the institution well over time.

“If the goal of financial aid is to bring people to HKS so we can have a more robust learning community, I think they’re doing that well,” he said. “It must be an incredibly difficult job. I have seen very little here to say that I am personally more deserving than anyone else.”

One student who asked not to be identified for this article told The Citizen that because he’s borrowing the full cost of his degree, his future employment options are limited. He wonders whether the lack of need-based aid is in fact restricting the diversity of the student body in a different way.

“We talk about diversity and how important it is, but socio-economically I’m not sure it’s that diverse,” he said. “We’re discussing the effectiveness of welfare in class, but how many of us come from families that have ever received a welfare check?”

Streletz cautioned against borrowing the full cost of an HKS degree, suggesting that there are many external resources available to students who do not receive funds from the school. She added that student financial services also offers a variety of programming to help students with budgeting, tax preparation, and paying off their loans after graduation.

“Yes, we disburse funds and manage aid, but more than that we are here for counseling,” added Streletz. “It’s about making sure that every student here understands what commitment they’re making, and being comfortable with that.”

Percentage of domestic students receiving scholarship/fellowship aid and average amount (Fall 2010)

Mason: 57%, $34,228

MPA/MC: 35%, $28,983

MPA: 70%, $26,915

MPP: 48%, $32,712

MPAID: 50%, $35,638

Percentage of international students receiving scholarship/fellowship aid and average amount (Fall 2010)

Mason: 30%, $52,223

MPA/MC: 26%, $69,024

MPA: 49%, $33,069

MPP: 45%, $32,655

MPAID: 65%, $43,856