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My friends who have left the Harvard womb and actually have jobs are pretty much all aspiring yuppies now, at least superficially. They wear suits and sweater sets to work and change from sneakers to dress shoes after their morning commute. And for the most part, while they still struggle to make rent, they can breathe a little easier because if they get sick, their companies will pay for their medical costs. Of course, the ones who don’t have jobs, thanks to this wonderful economy, are for the most part living at home, dissatisfied with the sparse offerings out there.
But there’s one thing in common between my employed and unemployed friends—many of their job decisions have been motivated by health care, or the lack of it. The ones who have taken jobs working for the Man have often consented to sell out because of the benefits. The non-profits they might have liked to work for were too poor to pay for a health or dental plan. My friends still living at home, on the other hand, don’t want to take a job just for the benefits, and are extracting their last bit of financial dependence from their parents while they wait for the right opportunity (or until their parents kick them out).
Enter Harvard administrators who, in everything from University President Lawrence H. Summers’s address to the first-year class to last year’s commencement ceremonies, optimistically encourage students to use the skills they’ve gained at Harvard to benefit people other than themselves. We get an earful from Summers as well as swarms of House tutors who constantly talk up public service, post-graduate fellowships and overseas volunteer work in impoverished countries. Sounds great, but for the majority of students who don’t get $20,000 to feed starving children in Ethiopia, public service often ceases to be an option.
If Harvard is really serious about encouraging its graduates to engage in public service, it should offer its fresh graduates a little more than a nice-looking degree and piles of tuition debts. During the first couple years after graduation, Harvard should offer low-cost, subsidized health coverage from University Health Services. When young Harvard grads don’t have to worry about benefits, a lot more of them could take lower-paying but more service-oriented jobs.
With this one change, the University would send two powerful messages; it would reinforce its commitment to producing graduates who care about public service and it would show that it still cares about students even after they graduate. Without such a plan, the administration’s exhortations to give back to the community seem a little empty. Two-thirds of the student body receive financial aid, and when we graduate, many of us are just as poor as when we started college. Without a little help from our alma mater, of course we are going to let McKinsey pay for our health care instead of struggling to pay for our own.
We’re going to be paying Harvard back with alumni donations for the rest of our lives. When we start out, the University could give us some cushion between the carefree student existence and the reality of making rent.
—Nikki B. Usher is a news editor.
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