Trouble in Financial Aid Town

There is need for more transparency and effective communication in disbursement of financial aid, especially for internationals

Adventures of a Non-Resident Alien

It is a universally accepted truth that a student in possession of no riches must be in want of financial aid. That is, if they want to go to college.

Indubitably, Harvard is one of the pioneers of eliminating this worry for those promising students who do not have promising bank statements. In surveying the class of 2019, The Crimson found that about 56 percent of freshman respondents reported receiving financial aid from Harvard. Moreover, with the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative, if your family earns less than $65,000 per year, your parents pay nothing for you to attend Harvard.

Harvard’s generosity when it comes to financial aid is indeed a blessing for many of us. However, this does not imply that the process, too, of receiving financial aid is free of difficulties. And receiving aid gets even more complicated if you are an international student.

It all seems very straightforward in the first financial aid letter. There is no mention of taxes. Your aid will cover not only your tuition but also incidental expenses. The cherry on top is the plethora of student jobs available for you to choose from. No worrying about student loans or putting financial pressure on your parents. This utopia, however, has some glitches, with taxes being most disruptive.

As an international student, the financial aid package, at least for me, is comprised of two parts: a taxable portion and another, non-taxable part. The amount of tax that must be paid has to do with the tax treaties that your country has with the U.S. For me, this amounts to roughly 14 percent per $10,000. I discovered all of this one spring, when my term-bill showed a deficit of $400 instead of the positive balance I expected. Upon closer investigation, I found a $1500 deduction labeled ‘tax’.

“Wait, what? But that’s my travel money! How do I go home?” I thought. Not only did I receive no money for books or travel this semester, but I ended up having to pay an extra $400. Being unaware of the obscure tax treaty between my country and America, and receiving no prior information from Harvard’s Financial Aid Office about how my aid would be affected, I was caught off guard. This completely thwarted my plans and dealing with the situation contributed greatly to a stressful few weeks. I was putting in more hours at work and constantly thinking about what I would do for the summer. I’d never foreseen any of this, since it was never explicitly mentioned.

We’re given little tax advice, even during FIP, the pre-orientation program specifically designed to give internationals a smooth integration into American college life. We never receive a comprehensive breakdown of our scholarship, so we have no idea what money will be taxed. Even though there is mention of ‘looking out for taxes later in the year’, I wish there had been more follow up afterwards that dealt with the matter in depth. And despite receiving no communication throughout the semester, I received an email asking us to pay up to $1,500 at the end of the semester, much too late to budget such a sum into my spending plan.

Discussing financial circumstances isn’t the best subject for small talk. You don’t break the ice with the details of your finances. Some are uncomfortable in conversations like those, and that’s completely fine. However, this means that more students will inevitably end up tackling situations and mishaps like mine on their own.

While Harvard’s commitment to fighting financial restraints is commendable, there are still improvements to be made in the Financial Aid Initiative. I strongly recommend that the financial aid office focus on developing a more exhaustive system of briefing students, especially international freshmen, about their respective packages. A proper orientation plan should be devised that zooms in on the nuts and bolts of how financial aid works. It would certainly help if consulting services were concentrated in one place, rather than split between the International Office and the Financial Aid Office as they currently are.

Further, Financial aid officers should be well versed in the cases of the students assigned to them, even if that includes being aware of what tax treaties each international student’s country has with the U.S. More importantly, the office should consider each international student’s tax commitments in their respective home country while deliberating on their financial needs.

If Harvard’s pledge to obliterate students’ financial worries is to be achieved, it is imperative that we work towards a more comprehensive, clear financial aid system.


Zuneera Shah, ’19 lives in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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