Gen Z isn't sure higher education is worth it — and it might be taking a toll on Harvard

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Gen Z isn't sure higher education is worth it — and it might be taking a toll on Harvard
The entrance to Harvard Yard.Scott Eisen/Getty Images
  • Applications to Harvard declined 5.14% this year, compared to last year.
  • The decline follows controversy at Harvard surrounding its response to antisemitism.
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Harvard might be losing some of its appeal among Generation Z.

The Boston Ivy League school announced that it accepted 1,937 students this year out of 54,008 applicants — a 5.14% decline in applications from last year despite marking the fourth year in a row the school received over 50,000 applications.

This data also comes after the school reported a 17% decline in applications for early admissions in December. While Harvard did not elaborate on any reasoning for the declines in applications alongside its release of the data, it follows a tumultuous past year for the school after it faced scrutiny for its response to antisemitism on campus, along with its admissions policies following the Supreme Court's affirmative action decision in June.

"Beyond another strong applicant pool, we are delighted by the stunning array of talents and lived experiences the Class of 2028 will bring with them from throughout the United States and around the world," William R. Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid, said in a statement.

Fewer applicants also came as Harvard increased its tuition to $82,866, a 4.3% increase from the previous year. While other prestigious schools did not experience an application decline — Yale, Columbia, and Dartmouth, for example, all saw their numbers increase — Harvard's data could offer a glimpse into Gen Z's changing sentiment regarding the value of higher education.

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A Business Insider July poll, in collaboration with YouGov, found that just 39% of Gen Z said advancing their education is important to them, and 46% of them said they don't think college is worth the cost. Sadie Shaw, 22, previously told BI that she dropped out of college after a month because she didn't see the point in paying for courses she could learn herself.

"It has been amazing for me to not be in debt," she said. "I have no student loans, like so many of my friends are in $100,000 in debt and student loans just to get a job that pays $60,000 a year."

Harvard offers free tuition for families with an income below $85,000. But, as the Harvard Crimson noted, the school did not increase that threshold to account for the tuition increase — even while having the biggest endowment in the country at just over $50 billion — likely increasing some affordability concerns for some prospective students.

Ongoing challenges for Harvard

Harvard propelled itself into the international spotlight following a congressional testimony last year with the leaders of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, after which the schools drew criticism from prominent donors that the school's leaders did not adequately condemn antisemitism.

As a result, some of Harvard's key donors — including Victoria's Secret owner Les Wexner — announced they would be pulling their donations from the school. Top Republican on the House education committee Virginia Foxx also led an effort to subpoena Harvard over documents outlining its strategies to address antisemitism, with a Harvard spokesperson saying in a statement that the school has "denounced antisemitism on our campus and has made clear that the university will continue to take actions to combat antisemitism in any form."

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Before the Israel-Hamas war, the Education Department also announced it was investigating Harvard over its use of legacy preference admissions policies following the Supreme Court's June ruling, which banned the consideration of race in college admissions.

Beyond the challenges Harvard itself is facing, students across the country are struggling to navigate the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, application due to ongoing errors and delays resulting from the Education Department's attempt to overhaul and simplify the process.

According to the National College Attainment Network, which tracks FAFSA data, applications are down nearly 29% compared to last year — meaning fewer students are applying for, and have a chance of receiving needed financial aid.

With concerns around the cost of higher education, and recent political discourse on campuses, more Gen Zers might decide that getting a degree just isn't worth it anymore — even if it's from Harvard.

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