How much cash have you spent so far this week? Each year, Harvard's Commencement becomes a more commercialized event. A tremendous amount of money exits the pockets of students, their parents and the University. It is not always clear where this money goes or if the sums changing hands are fair or necessary.
Students are often the first to face the costs of Commencement. Before the Harvard Alumni Association (HAA) has sent out its Senior Week brochures, students have already had to ante up for caps and gowns. Once the HAA's brochure makes it into seniors' hands, the further costs of joining one's fellow students in jubilation become manifest: $4 for a senior film and slide show; $12 for a moonlight cruise; $15 for the "Last Chance" dance; $35 for the Class Day Clambake; $10 for the Radcliffe Alumni Association luncheon.
That's $76 per person for the full slate of Senior Week events, all of which are priced at cost or below. By the way, another $35 will buy a sweatshirt embroidered with "Harvard-Radcliffe Class of 1996." Part of the proceeds from these sales go toward the senior class treasury.
Where will all that money come from? Someone certainly seems to think that seniors have plenty of extra cash sitting around. By June, every student has received at least one mailing from the Senior Class Gift. This fund-raising campaign, organized by seniors to aid the University's general fund, uses an unpleasant if effective method of solicitation. While most seniors are asked to give whatever they can, the gift organizers appeal to a small number of wellheeled students for gifts of $250 or more. How do the organizers know who can give the big bucks? They use an incredibly reliable method known as word-of-mouth.
Granted, all of these expenditures are completely voluntary. But the pressure to conform--to avoid being the one to slow down the bandwagon--often sways students into opening their wallets. After all, no one absolutely has to walk in a cap and gown for Commencement exercises. That's not to say anyone would want to be wearing pink in a sea of solemn, black robes. And when your own classmates are asking you to pledge $10 to the Senior Class Gift so that your house's participation rate will best all the rest, how easy is it to say no?
The final crunch for students comes when it's time to pick up tickets for today's morning exercises. Each senior receives four tickets--probably enough to seat one's nuclear family. But what about everyone else? For a large number of students, graduation from Harvard is an unprecedented event within their families. When the grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins want to come, seniors can only buy more tickets from their classmates.
As of this writing, the going rate for those tickets is $80 each. Selling just one ticket could pay for a whole week of activities; it's tempting to tell your little brother to watch the morning exercises on the simulcast in Sanders Theatre. This market effectively sends the message, "The more Commencement means to you, the more you pay." Unfortunately, how much Commencement means to you might not be directly proportional to your means.
Parents also face an enormous volume of costs this week. Expenses for transportation, food and lodging even for only one night can easily exceed hundreds of dollars. Moreover, four years of heavy term bills will not necessarily end with this one-week bang. While some students will no longer be financially dependent on their parents next year, a large number will still be in school. Unfortunately, these Commencement costs are only voluntary so far as attendance at a son or daughter's college graduation is voluntary.
The University's expenditures also verge on mandatory. For Commencement at Harvard with a capital H, there better be plenty of green grass, tents, heraldry and important guests. To the University's credit, Harvard always puts on a good show.
However, the value of a Harvard degree and the experience of attending the College probably would not be diminished if the University opted for a simpler, less expensive ceremony. Undoubtedly, for-going a little pomp and circumstance would fund a few more needy students in the next year's class. With the knowledge of such a trade-off, few seniors would lament the lack of a fancy celebration.
The constant exchanges of funds that mark a Harvard career are symptomatic of our nation's approach to higher education. The American university is always giving and taking at the same time. While the university gives you an education, it takes your tuition dollars. While that education gives you success in later life, Harvard takes the donations and connections that come with that accomplishment.
This system does not represent the confidence Harvard should have in the potential of its students. All over the world, students attend college free of charge; they pay for the next generation's education through their tax dollars. In this way, students who succeed financially are those who give back the most money to their universities.
Barring a change to entirely publicly-owned universities, Harvard might restructure its payment plan to reflect better its confidence in its graduates. Why not give students their education--and their Commencement--with a contractual agreement claiming one percent of their future earnings for eternity? This reward-driven approach might give the University an incentive to feed students into high-paying jobs, but that would not be much different from the current situation.
The advantage of this alternative is simple. Without the constant bills and payments, the Harvard experience could become vastly less stressful. Need-blind admissions would never be in jeopardy. And Commencement would take that much less of a toll on students' purses.
Daniel Altman '96 was editorial chair of The Crimson in 1995.
The full slate of Senior Week events costs $76 per person.
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