Last fall, the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid released a promotional video targeted at prospective applicants to the College called “Anything Could Happen at Harvard.” Scene by scene, the 16-minute video paints a cheerful and diverse image of an undergraduate experience rife with possibility. Once you are here, the video suggests, the broad spectrum of Harvard experiences is yours for the taking, no matter your background.
Yet, for those who come from low-income backgrounds, not all elements of the undergraduate experience are as fully accessible as they are for their wealthier classmates, in spite of the College’s recent efforts to open its gates to an increasingly diverse group of students.
Ten years into an initiative that has made Harvard’s the most robust financial aid program in the country and likely contributed to the matriculation of the College’s most diverse classes in its 377-year history, the gap between Harvard’s poor and its overwhelmingly affluent student body has become a pervasive part of undergraduate life.
Class background—while no longer as significant a factor in the ability to afford a Harvard education—still plays a large part in determining students’ experiences on a campus dominated by peers far wealthier than the average American. Socioeconomic status subtly shapes undergraduate life in a myriad of ways, as personal finances and class background influence students’ abilities to join student groups and otherwise partake in the experience idealized in brochures.
Many students from low-income households say that the financial barriers they bump up against everyday influence their sense of belonging at an institution that prides itself on inclusiveness.
Students rich and poor describe a reality that contradicts the message Harvard broadcasts to prospective applicants when it claims that anything, for anyone, can happen here.
“‘Anything can happen at Harvard’—that is such an empty statement to me,” says Keyanna Y. Wigglesworth ’16, who says that she receives significant financial aid from the College. “That’s such a Harvard thing to say—‘anything can happen here.’ No, it can’t, because people come from all different types of places in the world and walks of life.”
HARVARD’S INCOME GAP
Harvard is undoubtedly a national leader in offering financial aid to its undergraduates, a fact well-broadcasted both within its gates and beyond them. Launched in 2004, the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative today gives 20 percent of undergraduates—those with household incomes less than $65,000—the chance to attend the College almost for free, with no expected parental contribution.
Administrators tout the program as key to promoting class diversity at Harvard. And as the University celebrates the initiative’s 10-year anniversary, it also prepares to welcome its most racially diverse class of students ever to campus this fall.
“Harvard is much more diverse today than it was even a few years ago and we continue to bolster our efforts to make Harvard even more diverse in the years ahead,” Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 writes in an email.
Indeed, Harvard goes beyond any legal obligation in providing financial assistance to its students and promoting accessibility to its educational resources. Even so, despite the rise in socioeconomic diversity the College has seen since starting the Financial Aid Initiative a decade ago, its student body today is still far from representative of the country’s income distribution as a whole, as Harvard students are disproportionately upper class.
In The Crimson’s 2013 survey of the Class of 2017, 15 percent of respondents reported an annual family income of less than $40,000—a much smaller proportion than the U.S. as a whole. Meanwhile, 14 percent of respondents reported family incomes of more than $500,000; by contrast, less than 1 percent of American households fall within this range.
Even Harvard’s middle-income students earn at least two and a half times the amount that the median American household brings in during a given year, the survey shows. About 70 percent of respondents said their family income was over $80,000. The median household income in the U.S., by point of comparison, was just $51,371 in 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Those statistics offer a glimpse of a freshman class disproportionately filled with students from upper-middle and upper-class households, and comparatively few on the other end of the spectrum, leaving disadvantaged students to navigate a campus dominated—statistically, at least—by peers who hail from backgrounds more affluent than their own.
THROUGH THE GATES
When prospective students, no matter their socioeconomic status, receive letters informing them of their acceptance to Harvard, for a moment they hold in their fingertips the ticket to all the resources and opportunities that a Harvard education has to offer. And when generous financial aid packages enable them to accept that offer, students from low-income backgrounds can look forward to four years at an institution that for most of its history has been reserved for society’s socioeconomically elite.
The College supplements students’ financial aid packages with a number of programs to help them buy and rent winter coats and computers, respectively, and advise them on available resources to aid them in their transition.
Even before students arrive on campus, administrators in the Freshman Dean’s Office will have prepared to facilitate a comfortable transition for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, creating socioeconomically diverse entryways and making sure not to pair a student who receives no financial aid and a student on “extreme aid” together in a two-person room, Ivy Yard resident dean Michael C. Ranen and Dean of Freshmen Thomas A. Dingman ’67 explain.
But even as administrators sort students into residential settings over the summer, students have already begun sorting themselves along class lines.
While wealthier students are free to spend their summer or even a gap year before matriculation traveling the globe or diving into internship experiences, for those facing serious financial constraints, delaying the arrival to Cambridge can be out of the question. Where the rich can choose from a range of pre-orientation programs in the arts, outdoors, or service, for those who need to earn money, there is often only one option. The chance to earn a few hundred dollars before the term begins can be difficult to pass up, even if the First-Year Outdoor Program offers financial aid.
Wigglesworth, now a Cabot House social studies concentrator, worked for Dorm Crew before her freshman fall to earn money before class started, and she says she met her closest friends there. Almost two years later, she points to pre-orientation programming as an early cause of separation along class lines within the student body.
“Since you already have it split up like that, where...kids who need the opportunity to make money do a certain program and kids who don’t do a different program, you can already see the separation happening,” Wigglesworth says.
Regardless of whether or not they participate in pre-orientation programming, students from low-income households arriving on campus for Opening Days may find that interactions with their wealthier peers can amount to a culture shock, creating, for some, an early sense of alienation.
“My freshman year, I was just really acutely aware that I didn’t belong with the overwhelming majority of people that were here,” says Cody R. Dean ’14, who arrived in 2010 from a low-income household in West Virginia.
Matthew Wozny ’14 says that coming from this sort of background can put students at unease among wealthier individuals whom he saw displaying a sort of “etiquette” he had not seen before. As a result, he felt that he spoke in a way that some classmates did not find appropriate.
Jesse G. Sanchez ’14, a first-generation college student from San Diego, was surprised by the way students dressed at Harvard. In preparation for his freshman year, he purchased a number of large, unmarked, colored T-shirts—called “club pro” or “shocker” tees—to convey a sense of seriousness about his schoolwork. He planned to iron them each morning before class.
When he came to campus, however, he found that his style set him apart from peers he saw wearing collared shirts and brands such as Ralph Lauren instead. Sanchez says he felt out of place at first—and an interaction with a classmate early on that year only served to exacerbate that feeling.
To his surprise, another student approached Sanchez and asked if he was a classmate's Phillips Brooks House Association mentee from Boston.
“I think that there are these small moments where you realize, wow, I really stick out then, if this person thought that there was no way I could have been a student here,” Sanchez says. “I think moments like that are very eye-opening.”
When students make it through their first weeks of college and progress into the rest of their undergraduate careers, early disparities between the experiences of disadvantaged students and wealthier peers are often reinforced, rather than relieved, as students become more involved on campus.
While classmates who come from affluent households can choose whether or not they want to work and may even receive allowances from home, students of lower socioeconomic status need to work, sometimes not only for their own financial subsistence, but also to supplement family members’ incomes back at home.
Dean says he looked for employment right away, finding jobs where he could work between 6 p.m. and 2 a.m., when he was not in class, in part to send money back home to his family.
Like many other students, Sanchez praises the work-study opportunities that Harvard offers its students and the opportunity to attend the College that financial aid has given him. But he adds that term-time work can be a factor in determining students’ abilities to participate in other aspects of undergraduate life like extracurricular activities. Participation in student groups—which many graduates will later call the highlight of their four years at Harvard—is more accessible to peers whose schedules are not bound by shifts shelving books in Widener Library, preparing coffee in Lamont Café, or waiting tables at a restaurant in the Square.
Financial requirements of participating in extracurricular activities can limit low-income students’ access to the experiences they offer even further. Groups like club sports teams often charge dues or ask students to pay for their own equipment, and those costs, while perhaps insignificant to wealthier classmates, can deter students on a budget from participating. Sanchez remembers going to the annual activities fair at the start of his freshman year and feeling limited to groups that did not charge membership fees, limiting his freedom to explore as many potential interests.
Programs like the Student Events Fund, a need-based initiative to reduce the cost of attending some campus events for students who qualify, can mitigate some accessibility inequities. Still, SEF covers only a portion of the various extracurricular expenses that can add up over four years at Harvard—some of which are measured in not tens, but hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
Current Undergraduate Council leaders worry that the problem is getting worse as the body faces budgetary constraints and available funding for student groups becomes increasingly limited.
“We don’t think about the costs of certain activities. We don’t think about about the embarrassment of having to talk to a peer if you can’t afford the cost of certain activities,” former UC President Tara Raghuveer ’14 says. “I think that reinforces a divide here.”
Some say final clubs, often seen as symbolic of wealth-based exclusivity, reinforce inequalities because the punch process favors students who know other members. Raghuveer—herself a member of the all-female Bee Club—acknowledges this, although she says she does not see final clubs as the extent of the class inequality problem at Harvard.
Some, if not all, of the clubs offer financial aid. The presidents of Harvard’s male final clubs either declined to comment or could not be reached. According to Raghuveer, the Bee offers financial aid.
Beyond membership fees, the perceived atmosphere of the clubs can deter low-income students from getting involved. Wigglesworth, who says she sees the clubs as a concentration of wealth, was invited to punch this year but did not participate because she felt that she would feel uncomfortable in such an affluent environment.
“I felt weird being around all that money, and all that privilege,” Wigglesworth says. “I felt that when...the privilege difference or gap is so wide and so big, it’s hard for you to get along socially with people and to connect.”
These inequalities in the extracurricular realm reinforce separations between low-income students and the rest of Harvard’s largely affluent student body, separations that are more subtly reinforced by differences in clothing, the ability to eat out, or the way students spend their summers and time off. Wozny says that unlike his experiences in high school, he has found that relationships at Harvard are built along class lines in that students from lower income backgrounds cannot afford to participate in the expensive activities that allow wealthier students to bond.
Even inside the House system, which on the surface serves as an equalizer to students who eat in the same dining halls and reside in the same on-campus rooms, inequities in the form of extra, inconsistent expenses can exacerbate existing disparities. This year, for example, only students in Quincy House were not offered free, on-campus summer storage for their belongings, and according to Fitzsimmons, there is no financial aid fund specifically devoted to covering the additional cost of storage for affected students.
Incoming Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana says that all students, no matter their backgrounds, should feel a “strong sense of belonging and connection” at Harvard, “period.”
But for some low-income students, that sense can be as inaccessible as participation in a club sport or initiation into a final club. Moments of exclusion from the experiences of wealthier peers can add up to create the feeling that they are not welcome at Harvard.
Dean says that he immediately felt that he was an outsider within Harvard’s gates, to the point that he would eventually send out a number of transfer applications to other colleges, compelled to escape the mounting insecurity he felt in his early days at Harvard.
"If you can't relate on…that basic of a level, it's really hard to feel that you're a part of an entryway at the level that everyone else does," says Cody R. Dean.
The divergent perspectives from which he and his classmates approached political discussions, Dean says, contributed to the feelings of alienation that in part almost drove him away. He explains that the way his peers talked about alleviating poverty, for example, devalued his background. From these conversations freshman year, Dean says he inferred that classmates were saying, “You’re the type of person that we don’t want to exist.”
“If you can’t relate on…that basic of a level, it’s really hard to feel that you’re a part of an entryway at the level that everyone else does,” he says.
Substantive dialogue that many say could bridge such gaps is itself a rare occurrence at the College. Raghuveer says that the conversations she has had about class at Harvard have not been “productive.”
And when class does become central to discourse, it can provoke callous remarks that push the prospect for discussion further into the shadows. Wozny wrote about his experiences as a low-income student at Harvard and how they deterred him from giving to the senior gift fund in an op-ed published in The Crimson. In the comments section of that article, self-identified students and alumni posted vitriolic statements, dismissing his criticisms of Harvard as ungrateful and insignificant.
Although Wozny says that the negative reactions to his editorial have been “emotionally taxing,” he has since been contacted by other students who have felt similarly marginalized but have not spoken out on the issue because they fear the same kind of backlash he has faced.
While their peers largely avoid discussing an issue that unquestionably affects the quality of their Harvard experiences, a number of low-income students find themselves questioning their place at an institution that tells them “anything could happen” within its gates.
Dean, for his part, did not end up transferring to another school—he graduates from Harvard today—but even as he prepares to depart, he says he is unsure about whether or not an institution that so publicly claims to be a place inclusive to all was right for him.
“I don’t think Harvard is for everyone,” Dean says. “I don’t know if Harvard is or was for me.”
—Staff writer Madeline R. Conway can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @MadelineRConway.
—Staff writer Steven R. Watros can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @SteveWatros.