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