Paying the Price of a Harvard Education

Low-Income Students Are Forced To Face A Different Harvard

He comes from the slums of New York, what he calls "the dark side of the city." His father died when he was six. In June, after watching friends drop out of school to sell drugs, he became the first member of his family to graduate from high school.

Now, six months later, he is no longer surrounded by the drug scene and roach infested apartments. But he still sends money home to his financially struggling mother, a telephone operator.

Olentha Lavon Von Redden Jr. '90 is not your average Harvard freshman.

Each year, Harvard accepts a small number of students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Harvard doesn't release exact information, but, according to Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons, the parents of about one in eight members of the Class of '88 have never gone to college. Only one in five juniors comes from a non-professional background. The percentage from severely disadvantaged families is probably much smaller.

These students arrive at Harvard with a unique perspective on the world beyond the College's ivy-covered walls. On their way here many have overcome obstacles which, to their wealthier classmates, might have seemed insurmountable. But at the same time, economically disadvantaged students must often juggle an immense financial burden between two very disparate lives--home and college; their past and their present.

"To my parents, $350 for books--that's food, and heat, and clothing money," says Connie L. Craig '87-'88, from Cupertino, California. "For them, books are an extravagance."

Craig was one of 102 children raised by her foster parents, and two years after graduating from high school became the first one of her siblings to attend college. Her foster father supported the family by working as a janitor at a school for the handicapped.

"When I left my job at Hitachi, it was difficult for my parents to understand why I would give up a good job just to go to Harvard," Craig recalls.

Craig worked the first two years after she graduated from high school, and now owns her own business. As a result she has been able to protect her family from new monetary worries. But many students from working-class backgrounds say they experience intense financial pressure.

Robert R. Read, who runs a discussion group at the Bureau of Study Council (BSC) for economically disadvantaged students, says his advisees suffer an almost paranoid fear that their financial aid checks won't come through, leaving them without money to pay term bills.

Perhaps because they feel responsible for subjecting their parents to severe hardship, even more pervasive among economically disadvantaged students is a powerful sense of filial obligation.

"Freshman year I felt like I couldn't let my parents down, because of all the money they were spending on me," says Gerard J. Coughlan '87-'88, whose father is a meatcutter and whose mother is a secretary. "I talked to them about this and they said, 'Don't think about it in terms of money. Just do the best you can.'"

Union Dorms Senior Advisor Thomas Hassan, who was a "blue collar kid at Brown," says when he talks to students from low-income backgrounds he is forced to recall his own "experience at a school that was expensive, worrying that my parents had to scrape together the money and not wanting to disappoint them--wanting to do well, finding it hard to admit defeat."

Despite financial aid, Von Redden says his mother is hard pressed to pay college bills. Like Coughlan's parents, his mother doesn't want her son to think about money, but Von Redden, who worked 40 hours a week during high school, cannot help it. "What bills I run up I make sure she doesn't see," he says. "I even sent $120 home."

Climbing the Ivy

Many students from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds are the first students from their high schools to have gone to an Ivy League college in many years. Robert L. Lowe '87-'88 believes he may be the first ever from his area--Chicago's South Side--to come to Harvard.

One reason for this is that many students from low-income families don't apply to expensive colleges, according to Fitzsimmons. Because they don't realize how comprehensive financial aid can be, these students are eliminated from the candidate pool before the selection process even begins, he adds.

"There is a waste of talent," Fitzsimmons says. "Students from such backgrounds ought to be considering the very best schools, and often they don't for all the wrong reasons."

Cutbacks in federal student aid programs over the past six years have amplified this problem, Fitzsimmons says. "What we start to see is a trend that has disturbed me. I think many economically disadvantaged students hear about some cutback in aid and they start thinking about not coming to college."

But Von Redden disagrees about the fundamental reason that low-income students don't apply. "A lot of people at my school--even possible candidates--didn't bother to apply because Harvard has that stereotype: white, elite and prep school."

Pressure Cooker

Persistent pecuniary pressure in a world that seems to be, comparatively, overflowing with privilege makes many needy students feel isolated, as if they don't belong and aren't understood by a wealthier Harvard society.

"I didn't feel deprived until I came here." says Susan M. Dynarski '86-'87, whose mothers' $15,000 salary is her family's sole support. "It would upset me when people would go out to dinner and I couldn't go with them. It takes getting used to students who have so much money they don't know what to do with it."

Isolation hits working-class students harder than other minority groups, according to Read. "Unlike race or gender, your economic background is invisible. Nobody knows, [and there is] no forum to talk about it. [At Harvard] it's presumed you have resources."

Read recalls one student who, during a BSC discussion, said, "It's nice to be in a place where students can understand what it's like when you have to buy a textbook in the morning, xerox it, and return it in the afternoon."

Some students react to their isolation by trying to hide the cause of the problem, according to Coughlan. "You come in and you don't want to be looked at as if you're different. You don't want to admit you're not wealthy," he says. "Maybe freshmen feel like they need to hide it."

"It's hard to express coming from a lower economic background because people tend to feel sorry for you," says Craig, who concentrates in history and sociology. "No one wants to evoke pity. It's easy to say you're different, but it's hard to say why."

"[Disadvantaged freshmen] may expect that everyone is a prototype, final club person. That's the perspective from the outside," says Lowe.

Von Redden believes these stereotypes are largely true. "I see a lot of white people that went to prep school," he says. "I see a lot of money."

By the time they are juniors and seniors, however, many low-income students say they have realized their initial impressions were inaccurate or at least exaggerated. Lowe, for instance, admits he once had the "pre-conceived notion that [Harvard] was a very white, very East Coast, very well-off school" but now he knows this isn't nearly as pervasive as he imagined.

"Contrary to popular belief," says Lowe, a computer science major, "you can meet a lot of different types of people."

With time, many disadvantaged students overcome their sense of isolation from the rest of Harvard. But as they become acculturated, many discover they have lost contact with their past, and now feel cut off from their old communities. Their friends and family at home often cannot understand the students' new lives. Students from non-college backgrounds may be made outcasts by their encounters with academia.

Recalling her family's reaction when she was accepted to Harvard, Dynarski says, "They were proud. But with my sisters there was hostility. I got baited [then] and even more so now. I was like them when I came in; now I get ragged on for being a Harvard snob."

Me, Preppy?

When Von Redden went home for the first time this Thanksgiving, he was shocked by a cool reception. "So many a friends accused me of being preppy. I thought that was absurd. Me, preppy?" he asks incredulously.

While Craig's family is very supportive, and her younger siblings now aspire to Harvard, she says after she left for college her older siblings "expected me to be different--as if when I cut myself, blue blood would spill out."

After several years here, Craig, Dynarski, and Coughlan all say they feel at home. With the passage of time they have realized that there is more to Harvard than the stereotypes. But that realization process has, they argue, been largely one sided.

For many students from working-class backgrounds, one of the most painful practices of "conventional" Harvard undergraduates is their habit of generalizing about things they know nothing about.

"Making assumptions about 'the poor' is risky, especially for someone who's never been there," says Craig. "The idea of the disadvantaged is so stereotypical it leaves no room for the individual."

Craig remembers an incident in `Justice'--Moral Reasoning 22--when the section was discussing poverty. "Someone said if there was a poor man with 10 kids, and he needed money, then of course he would kill someone to get it. I didn't get mad, but I was saddened that she was so deluded."

The Harvard administration tries not to make assumptions when dealing with underprivileged students in order to avoid just such delusions, says Dean of Freshman Henry C. Moses. The University has designed no special problems for working-class students because, Moses says, any such program would force Harvard to generalize unfairly about problems facing the economically disadvantaged.

"I've always taken working-class kids as they come, and never made any assumptions about the effect of their family background," Moses says. "It is very hard for me to generalize in a way that might be useful."

Craig echoes this sentiment, but nonetheless believes students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds bring an important alternate viewpoint into their encounters with affluence. Too often, she says, these experiences are ignored by a system unused to dealing with diversity.

"There's an assumption here of equality which overlooks what each students has to offer individually," Craig says. "If one were to assume that every student at Harvard was essentially the same as every other student, that would be overlooking what each student has to offer on his or her own--the unique perspective each has."