Free Tuition at Harvard: One Parent’s Story

Published by Wendy Nelson on

Last week, I wrote about who gets free tuition to an Ivy League school in Can You Get Free Ivy League Tuition?  This week, in keeping with the same topic, I want to share some insight from a parent whose son received free tuition at Harvard.

As a reminder from my last post, Ivy League schools do not give merit-based aid.  They only give need-based aid.  However, it takes quite a bit of “merit” to get admitted to these schools at all.  Harvard’s acceptance rate for Fall of 2016 was 5.9%.  34,285 applications were received and 2.032 students were accepted.

Shellee Howard, who runs an independent college consulting business called College Ready, was able to help her son prepare appropriately to get admitted to Harvard and get free tuition based on need.  She was not a college consultant at the time her son was applying to schools.  Helping him through the process is what got her interested in helping other students so she studied to become a certified college counselor.

I asked Shellee if they went into the college search process looking for free tuition.  She said no, her son applied to 12 schools, over half of them Ivy League and other extremely competitive schools.  Their goal was to get acceptances and then worry about the money later.  She said in hindsight that was not a good plan.  She went into the process as a single mom trying to make ends meet with no idea how to pay for four years of college.

I asked her what she thought got her son into Harvard.  She explained that her son was second in his class at a large public high school in California.  He had a 4.59 weighted GPA and decent test scores.  He had good extra-curriculars:  captain of the soccer team, and officer in 2 clubs.  What she believes set him apart from other applicants was his community service experience.  She took him to Kenya and they lived with a family there, volunteering in the local orphanage.  The area was considered the worst slum in the world.  They came back home and raised $3,000 to send back to the children in the orphanage.  Her son wrote his admission essay about this experience and she said it was a very powerful essay.

When asked what families must do, especially if they are looking for free tuition based on merit or need for their student, she said plan and keep adjusting the plan.  She recommends that families start planning before Freshman year of high school and work with a professional college consultant to put together a strategic plan.

I understand the benefits that working with a professional college consultant can bring, but I also believe that a savvy parent can do almost as well helping his or her own student with college admissions and scholarship applications.  One of the drawbacks of doing this yourself is the number of hours you need to invest.  I often talk in my articles about how I spent hundreds of hours getting educated in order to help my oldest daughter through the college search process.  That’s what lead to me starting this website.  I learned so much that I wanted to share it with others.  Another of the drawbacks of counseling your own child through the college search process is that they don’t always want to listen to advice from their own parents.  Often, the same advice is better received when it comes from someone else.

While high schools have guidance counselors to help students with their college search process, these counselors serve a large group of students and usually can’t devote much individual attention to each student.

For some families, it will just make the most sense to engage a professional college consultant.

As for the story of Shellee Howard’s experience helping her son earn free tuition at Harvard, she is writing a book to help other parents.  She plans to publish it in April of 2017 and when I get the details, I will share it on my site.


Becky P · March 6, 2017 at 12:15 am

Wendy, I am a regular reader of your blog/website and enjoy your posts. However, this one troubles me. As a former financial aid officer at a highly selective university, the kind of wording used here to describe a full ride scholarship at Harvard is the kind of misinformation that I combat nearly daily. As you state at the beginning of the post, Harvard does not give (in that, they do not have any) merit-based scholarships. But the language used, especially when detailing his grades and service experience, seems to imply that he won or earned this scholarship because of merit. On the contrary – this student got a full ride because he “qualified” for a full NEED-based package, not because he “earned” it. This may seem slight, but the difference between doing things to gain admission and doing things, financially, to qualify for as large as possible need-based financial aid award is significant. I hope her book will correctly detail those differences before you recommend it.

    Wendy Nelson · March 22, 2017 at 4:46 pm

    Hi Becky,

    Thanks for the different viewpoint. I think you make a good distinction. Although the grades and service experience were CRITICAL to this student getting accepted to Harvard, they had nothing to do with his award of a need-based scholarship. I will definitely review for that when I get to read Shellee’s book.


LauraK · April 3, 2017 at 12:01 pm

As an Independent counselor I have to agree with Becky P. This is dangerous wording and encourages students who are from higher income families that they have the opportunity to earn merit money and attend Harvard. Many think that if their child is great student, the money will be there but this simply is not true at Harvard and any other school that does not offer merit. You are doing a disservice to families wth the wording of “full ride”. This family did not receive a full ride to Harvard. There is no such thing. They were poor.

    Wendy Nelson · April 3, 2017 at 7:00 pm


    Thank you for your comments. I agree that the wording could be misleading. The article has been changed to only refer to “free tuition” and not a “full ride”.


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