What are you doing next summer?” belongs in the pantheon of questions that Harvard students secretly cannot wait to be asked. Standing amidst such classics and standard-bearers as “Where do you go to school,” “What are you doing after graduation,” and “You must be really smart, right,” the “summer question”––soon to gain ubiquity with the approach of spring––is a guilty pleasure.
And for good reason. Whether in New York, at the Times or Goldman Sachs, or in New Delhi with WorldTeach, most Harvard students have few limitations to the opportunities they can pursue over the summer or the people they can impress by sharing them.
Most, but not all. Harvard’s financial aid policy currently requires all students receiving support from the College to contribute $2,000 from their summer earnings to the cost of their next year of schooling. This policy, while not entirely unreasonable, places an undue burden on students receiving financial aid, and encourages them to forgo nonpaying positions in favor of salaried summer jobs.
Director of Financial Aid Sally C. Donahue frames the College’s expected contribution more favorably. “Summer opportunities are really not limited by expected summer income contribution,” she argued, explaining that the expectation that students work or borrow $2,000 is hardly unreasonable, given the generosity of the College’s financial aid program. Asking students to supplement their term-time grants with summer income is, Donahue believes, soliciting an investment in their own futures. “There is a belief on the part of the College that students should invest in their own education,” she explained.
Expecting students to play an active role in supporting their own education is perfectly sensible on the part of the Financial Aid Office (FAO). What the current policy fails to consider, however, is that such an investment need not always be financial. In many cases, in fact, the greatest dividends––both to students and to our community at large––are paid not in dollars but in experiences.
Many of the most enriching summer internships––those with publications like Atlantic Monthly or with nonprofits like the Council on Foreign Relations––are unpaid. While Harvard does offer a vast number of grants and other forms of support for students pursuing unpaid but valuable summer activities, these grants are almost uniformly intended to help students support themselves during the summer and do nothing to offset the summer earnings expectation. Students on financial aid will still emerge $2,000 in debt, even after a full summer of productive employment.
While it is true that a $2,000 deferred-interest loan, repayable after graduation, is not likely to mangle the financial futures of most students, expecting students to borrow thousands of dollars to finance a summer of unpaid work requires these students to make a choice between pursuing the most valuable opportunities while enrolled at Harvard and minimizing personal debt. At an institution with such unparalleled resources, no student should be forced to make this choice.
While Harvard should not penalize those students who do not earn money over the summer because they are pursuing personally beneficial programs, the College should be especially careful to ensure that those who wish to pursue public-interest positions are not impeded by the summer savings expectation. Students who work in unpaid public service internships during the summer are more likely than most to enter lower-paying public interest careers after college, and it is precisely the nature of these careers that will make it more difficult for them to write-off a $2,000 loan.
The concerns of David H. Garcia ’09, a student on financial aid, reflect the pressure that the summer savings expectation places on students interested in service-oriented summer opportunities. “I wanted to do an unpaid internship in Latin America, but another $2,000 is a lot of money,” Garcia explained. “I need to get a [paying] job.”
Skeptics might suggest that Garcia has not considered all possible sources of revenue or that he does not view a $2,000 loan from the appropriately far-sighted perspective, and this may be true. But, despite any explanation of the part of the FAO, the fact remains that Garcia––and hundreds of students like him––have been and will continue to be discouraged from seeking public service positions by the prospect of $2,000 in debt.
The FAO ought to be encouraging students to seek public-service and public-interest opportunities over the summer, not erecting barriers to these ends. To accomplish this, it ought to offer waivers of its summer earnings expectation for students pursuing unpaid positions, especially those that serve the public interest. This waiver could also be offered alongside current grants that support students’ unpaid summer activities, thereby ensuring that students whose summer pursuits are recognized as valuable by the College won’t be discouraged by the prospect of personal debt.
Were the FAO to revise its summer earnings expectation in this fashion, the costs would be comparatively minimal. Offering an exemption to 1,000 financial aid recipients pursuing valuable nonpaying summer opportunities would require an increase of less than three percent to the College’s nearly $80 million aid budget. As the College has increased financial aid funds by 49 percent over the last six years, this provision would be not at all out of step with the current pace of FAO budget growth.
A summer earnings expectation more finely attuned to student needs would relieve financial aid recipients of an undue burden, expanding opportunities for personal and educational growth and encouraging public interest work. Such a policy would serve the interests of these students, of the general public, and of fairness and equity at large.
And it might make answering Grandma’s question––you know the one––a lot more fun this spring.
Paul R. Katz ’09, a Crimson editorial editor, lives in Hurlbut Hall.
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