THE SINGLE MOST POWERFUL TOOL for attracting superb students to Harvard Kennedy School and empowering them to pursue careers in public service is financial aid. But existing resources allow the School to provide substantial assistance to only a small fraction of students who have demonstrated need. We spoke with Dean Doug Elmendorf about HKS’s plan to increase philanthropy dedicated to financial aid at the School.
Q: Why is financial aid so important?
Our students come to the Kennedy School because they are passionate about improving the lives of others through better governments, nonprofit organizations, and public-oriented aspects of private enterprises. Once here, they learn from our outstanding faculty, exceptional convening power, and strong connections to public leaders—and these remarkable opportunities simply cannot be found elsewhere with the depth and breadth available at HKS.
But not all great emerging public leaders have the means to attend the School—especially because they need to step away from their jobs and uproot their lives to come to Cambridge, in some cases moving here from the other side of the world. Our goal is to help many more students be able to afford a Kennedy School education so that they can gain the skills and opportunities they need to make a difference in the world. And to do that, we need robust financial aid.
Q: How is this priority integral to the mission of the Kennedy School?
Enabling the most promising policymakers and public leaders to come to HKS is essential for us to make the greatest possible impact on the lives of people across the United States and around the world. Moreover, policymaking and public leadership benefit from incorporating perspectives from diverse backgrounds, including varying income levels and life experiences, because diverse perspectives can improve the caliber of public decision-making and because diverse leadership can build trust and legitimacy among people who are affected.
Q: Do you hear from applicants who cannot afford to attend the Kennedy School?
Yes. Every year, I receive emails from exceptional people who have been admitted to the School but cannot afford to attend—and those messages are truly heartbreaking.
Q: Many students assume significant debt to fund their education. What role did this play in your decision to make a concerted effort to raise additional resources for financial aid?
Carrying a heavy debt load forces some graduates to take jobs in which their contributions to public policy and leadership will be more limited than in other jobs—which means that many organizations miss out on having these talented and passionate individuals to seek solutions to public problems. We must raise more funds for financial aid so that our graduates can pursue their passion and talent for public service.
Q: Who donates to the School to help provide financial aid?
Support comes from around the globe, from alumni and friends who believe in our mission. These gifts of various amounts make a tremendous difference in the lives of students who would otherwise not be able to attend the Kennedy School.
What many people do not know is that the Kennedy School can access only 3 percent of Harvard’s overall endowment, and those funds are highly restricted to specific purposes. Alumni often give because they have experienced the difference financial aid made in their own education, and others give because they believe in our mission and our ability to execute on it. We are very thankful to everyone whose generous philanthropy fuels our mission by helping our students.
Q: What goals do you hope to achieve?
By the time the Kennedy School celebrates its 90th anniversary, in 2026, we want to be able to offer at least half our students the fellowships they need to partially or fully cover their tuition and fees. That means helping at least 200 more students.
To do this we are making the importance of financial aid a cornerstone of our conversations with alumni and friends. We will ask every member of the Harvard Kennedy School community to contribute—and their combined philanthropy will help us achieve our goal.
Our alumni and donors support the School’s mission in many ways, including through their work and their generosity. They focus on creating positive change for others, and they do so without hesitation. Our community is very driven by this mission—and that’s why we expect to succeed in reaching our goal.
Banner photograph by Kayana Szymczak; headshot by Martha Stewart; Inline images courtesy of Soledad Rueda and Tomás Recart