A piece of furniture nearly ruined the beginning of freshmen year for Peter M. Conti-Brown ’05. Conti-Brown, who had just arrived at Harvard from his home state, Oklahoma, could only afford to attend Harvard because of the generous financial aid package he had received from the College.
“My mom is a school teacher, and I’m one of seven kids,” Conti-Brown says. “The spending money I had growing up was all money I had earned from working, and I wasn’t expecting a lot of the expenses that came along when I started college.”
So when Conti-Brown agreed to pitch in with his wealthier roommates to help outfit their new dorm room in Grays, he was surprised when his roommates came back with a $600 coach. Even split among the five roommates, the expense would wipe out most of Conti-Brown’s bank account, which had about $200 in it. Conti-Brown hadn’t even thought about other expenses—like textbooks—yet. “What was I supposed to do?” Conti-Brown says, “Say, ‘sorry guys, but that’s not in my budget?’”
The incident was one of many that Conti-Brown says made him even more self-conscious about his relatively disadvantaged economic background. “At every turn I was expecting that there would be code words I wouldn’t understand or expectations I wouldn’t get,” Conti-Brown recalls. “I was always on guard.” GETTING OFF GUARD
The experiences of Conti-Brown and other students from disadvantaged economic backgrounds were what led in part to the creation of the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative (HFAI) in February 2004 and its subsequent expansion in 2006. Parents in families with incomes of less than $60,000 are no longer expected to contribute to their children’s costs of attending at Harvard. Families that earn a total income of between $60,000 and $80,000 have their expected contributions reduced, and are supported by additional initiatives.
Conti-Brown, who had worked informally with the Office of Undergraduate Admissions and Financial Aid and then-University President Lawrence H. Summers on the project, would become HFAI’s 2004-2005 undergraduate director. He and a group of other students pushed hard for the recruiting of students from more disadvantaged backgrounds. HFAI student coordinators spent the summer after HFAI was announced calling thousands of low-income students across the students, encouraging them to apply regardless of concerns about Harvard’s high price tag.
And they did. The percentage of students who qualified has increased to successively every year, according to Melanie Brennand Mueller ’01, a financial aid officer. Next year, Harvard will admit its fourth class under the HFAI recruiting program.
But making sure students can afford to come to Harvard was not HFAI’s only concern. A far more difficult problem would be to make sure that these students would feel comfortable at Harvard where social and cultural differences, stemming from but not limited to economic factors, may abound. And the Horatio Alger-esque myth of students skyrocketing into a world of privilege the moment they enter Harvard’s gates might not prove true for many who come from disadvantaged backgrounds.
“When I first came to Harvard, I thought people would be friends regardless of economic background, but my social circle ended up being a lot of HFAI students or students on financial aid,” says Juan S. Arias ’09, a recipient of HFAI.
Arias attributes this in part to cultural differences: for instance, he recalls feeling out of place at Freshman Formal. “Almost everyone who was there rented or owned tuxedos...they were all really dressed up, and I didn’t even own a tux. It was just really strange,” Arias says.
“There are a lot of mental barriers,” says Jeffrey Kwong ’09, another student receiving HFAI. “And there are definitely social differences. Students like me, who are on HFAI and use the Student Events Fund to get tickets to things aren’t going to be going to Final Clubs anytime soon.”
Mental and social barriers may be aggravated by a general reluctance to discuss economic situations in a personal context. “Harvard students talk about economic and social segregation, but only in an academic context. When I would talk to people about my financial situation, other people would become very uncomfortable in their body language, or there would be awkward silences,” says Rachel A. Culley ’07. During her time at Harvard, Culley was both a recipient of HFAI and a student coordinator for the program.
“Once a friend quietly informed me, I think you’re making people uncomfortable when you talk about your situation,” Culley recalls.
But while some students are all-too-aware of the problems that coming from an economically-disadvantaged background can bring, others don’t see their economic situation as an issue at all
Baltazar A. Zavala ’11, who says he can afford to attend Harvard because of help from HFAI, notes, “It’s not really something you talk about when you’re introducing yourself. In fact, it hasn’t even really come up with my roommates.” Zavala, who is from El Paso, Texas, also says he doesn’t see many class differences at Harvard: “Most people here seem like the ones back home,” Zavala says. A HANDS-OFF METHOD
The differing views on how financial background plays into the Harvard experience is what makes the Office of Undergraduate Admissions and Financial Aid so reluctant to push to move beyond offering mainly economic aid to students. Assuming that financial aid students need help in forms other than the economic, such as programs that facilitate social interactions, can actually hamper whether students on HFAI feel comfortable at Harvard.
For instance, a mentoring program originally planned for HFAI students never really got off the ground because not enough HFAI students expressed interest, according to Mueller.
“We never want to make any assumptions about students just because they’re on financial aid,” Mueller says. “A student once said to me, ‘no one told me I was poor until I got into Harvard.’ Where this student was from, everyone made $60,000 a year. But at Harvard, suddenly that’s considered poor.”
But perhaps building a diverse student body is enough. “Forcing people to make friends from a different socioeconomic background is, at best laughable,” Conti-Brown, now a student at Stanford Law School, points out. “All that can be done is to continue admitting a critical mass of students, increasing the diversity of the student body [so] that, hopefully diverse friendships can form naturally.”
As one student, Kwong notes: “The University has done as much as they can. The rest is up to the students.”