Harvard Business School, one of the world’s most prestigious providers of business education, will offer free MBA tuition for lower-income students, responding to growing concerns in the US over higher education costs and the need for increased social mobility.
The school will waive annual fees of $76,000 across the two years of its flagship MBA programme for about a tenth of the intake — about 200 students in the current cohort of 2,000.
“Harvard Business School should be a place where the most talented future leaders can come to realise their potential,” dean Srikant Datar said in a statement. “We want to remove the financial barriers that stand in their way and alleviate the burden of debt so they can focus on becoming leaders who make a difference in the world.”
Applicants will be judged based on their gross income from the prior three years, assets, socio-economic background and levels of undergraduate debt. They will still be required to cover living costs and insurance, estimated at about $35,000 a year.
Some US universities, particularly the richer ones, have offered improved financial terms against a backdrop of criticism over sharply rising costs and the escalating burden of student debt.
The shift to teaching online and tight restrictions on campus activities during the Covid-19 pandemic, while mental health concerns surged, has also stoked fresh debate about the value for money provided by universities.
President Joe Biden promised reforms to the country’s $1.6tn in student debt during his election campaign, which has so far included some pauses on collection of payments.
The Black Lives Matter movement also refocused discussion on access to university. Steven Rogers, a former finance lecturer, retired from Harvard in 2019 after expressing his “heavy disappointment” at the business school for failing to do more to address diversity. It has since released a racial equity action plan and appointed a chief diversity and inclusion officer as well as other faculty who identify as black or African-American.
Dartmouth announced at the start of this year that it would join the handful of US universities offering “need-blind” admission to undergraduates from around the world regardless of their ability to pay in an effort to improve the diversity of its intake. It will waive annual tuition and accommodation fees of $80,000 for those judged eligible.
However, some other US colleges have abandoned need-blind admission policies over the past few years, citing the financial strain.
Harvard has the largest overall university endowment, and its business school, supported by donations from alumni, provides an estimated annual financial aid budget of $45mn. HBS said about half of its students receive need-based scholarships, with annual support averaging $42,000 in 2021-22.
Chad Losee, the business school’s managing director of MBA admissions, said: “It’s unusual for a graduate business school to have a needs-based approach to financial aid. We believe we have the largest one.”
He said that students understood the long-term value of the MBA, but “we want to help people really address concerns about the upfront costs”.