(Correction: Because of a reporting error, a story in the March 31 City & Region section incorrectly stated that Princeton University announced an expansion of its student aid program for low-income students in response to a 2004 Harvard University initiative. Princeton launched its own expanded student aid programs in 1998 and 2001.)
Harvard University officials said yesterday that students of families making less than $60,000 per year will not have to chip in tuition, a move that comes amid fierce competition for talented students of limited means.
Just two years ago, Harvard promised it would provide enough financial aid for families making $40,000 or less so they did not have to pay any of their own money. The initiative touched off a battle between elite universities to woo a more economically diverse group of students.
Princeton, Yale, the University of Virginia, and other schools responded to Harvard's program by announcing their own expanded aid programs. Ivy League rival University of Pennsylvania upped the ante last week, announcing a similar program for students from ''economically disadvantaged" families making less than $50,000 per year.
MIT expanded its financial aid coverage for low-income students a few weeks ago, but Harvard president Lawrence H. Summers insisted yesterday that the university was simply building on its own successful initiative.
''We always envisioned this as something we would . . . expand with the passage of time," Summers said.
Summers said that the numbers support the move. Harvard's current freshman class has 24 percent more students from families with annual incomes of under $60,000 than their sophomore counterparts. The class that will arrive in September will have 10 percent more students from that income bracket than the current freshmen, he said.
The expansion in Harvard's pool of potential students, he said, has resulted in not just a more economically diverse class, but one of higher academic caliber. ''I have said repeatedly that the larger the lake you fish in, the bigger fish you will catch," Summers said.
Donald Heller, a professor at Penn State's Center for the Study of Higher Education, said he expected a continuation of a ''bidding war" for the relatively small number of poor but highly qualified students who could help redress the lack of economic diversity at private universities and flagship public institutions.
Heller said that Harvard's latest move was significant because it actually moved the line for a free education into range of moderate-income families, who are often defined as having incomes in the low-$50,000 range.
A few dozen of the nation's wealthiest schools have for many years provided substantial financial aid that makes it possible for poor students to attend, yet the percentage of these students remained very low. A 2004 study found that in the most selective US colleges, only 3 percent of students came from the poorest sector of society, and 10 percent came from the bottom half of the socioeconomic spectrum.
Many of the colleges that followed Harvard's lead also launched aggressive advertising campaigns aimed at lower-income students, hoping to counter the image of their universities as educational country clubs for rich white students.
Sandy Baum, an economist at Skidmore College, said she does not expect Harvard's latest move to spark a new round of aid increases at other schools, since it was made possible largely by Harvard's massive $26 billion endowment.
''There are not many other schools who can do this," she said.
Harvard officials also announced a reduction in the mandatory parental contribution for families earning between $60,000 and $80,000 annually.
Annual tuition and room and board at Harvard currently total just over $44,000. University officials said yesterday that two-thirds of Harvard students receive some financial aid, and that the average grant for next year is expected to be $33,000.