A Public Good

Students with service internships should have their summer work contribution waived

One of the beauties of matriculating at Harvard College is that every student is afforded the same opportunities regardless of his or her family’s financial background. Students at both extremes of the socioeconomic spectrum participate in the same extracurricular activities, live in the same whitewashed rooms, buy the same books, and take the same classes.

In the summer, however, that parallel breaks down: students on financial aid are expected to work to pay their student contribution.

If a student is planning on interning on Wall Street or taking a paying job elsewhere, coming up with the contribution, while a minor pain, is a reasonable demand. But if a student wants to take a public service internship which pays little to nothing, the average $1,500 to $2,300 student summer work contribution could force that student to reconsider his or her summer plans.

It shouldn’t be that way. Just as students on financial aid should not be afraid to take a class because of high textbook costs, they should not be dissuaded from enriching and valuable summer activities because they would have to go into debt—a reality that many students nonetheless face each year.

There is a plethora of sources for summer funding for internships and travel, from Institute of Politics (IOP) stipends to the Dean’s Summer Research Awards. Most of those stipends, however, only cover living expenses, so the problem of a student’s summer contribution persists.

Thankfully, there is a fairly simple solution: the Financial Aid Office (FAO) could waive one summer’s contribution for students planning to work in an unpaid position in the public or community service fields. Such a system, which is already in place at other peer institutions, is at the heart of a proposal of spearheaded by students from the IOP and recently endorsed by the Undergraduate Council.

We hope, however, that in working out the details of such a system, administrators will define “public service” as broadly as possible. Students already face strong incentives to take a big paycheck on Wall Street, and the University should not deter students who wish to devote their summer to a nobler cause. Many admirable summer internships and jobs are unpaid, and a student should not have to be forced to select from a limited menu of government and community service jobs to receive a waiver.

A good solution would be to have students seeking a waiver submit a brief application to the FAO explaining what they are planning on doing. We would hope that the FAO would be particularly open minded and lenient in determining which proposals are up to snuff. Such a system would allow students to pursue what they—rather than the University—think would be a valuable summer experience, regardless of financial constraints.