Scavenging the shelves of the Coop at the beginning of the year can be a wrenching experience, particularly for students on financial aid: Do you buy an expensive course pack, or do you save the money earmarked by the Financial Aid Office as “personal expenses” for other opportunities during the semester? In the hopes that fewer Harvard students will have to choose between being able to socialize with friends and buying course books, we support the proposed Course-Cost Assistance Program (C-CAP).
Harvard has been a national trendsetter in the area of financial aid. Largely thanks to the nascent Harvard Financial Aid Initiative (HFAI), Harvard’s financial aid budget has mushroomed in recent years, reaching approximately $100 million per year. Families making less than $60,000 are no longer required to make any contribution to their children’s education, while students are expected to contribute $2,000 on a yearly basis. Tuition, room, board, health fees, travel expenses, and personal expenses are all covered; the total expense is just short of $50,000 per year.
Yet even with this tremendously generous system, students have had difficulties budgeting the money that the Financial Aid Office allots for “personal expenses.” Currently set at $2,795 per year, “personal expenses” are meant to cover everything not provided by Harvard. This includes items from toothpaste and soap to clothing and textbooks. To determine the size of the stipend, Financial Aid Office uses cost estimates derived from sample budgets and student surveys.
The textbook portion of that estimate is in the realm of $1, 250 per year (used books are about $300 less), leaving a student on financial aid the modest sum of around $50 per week for all of their other personal expenses. But, of course, there lies the nearly irresistible temptation within this budgeting scheme to compromise on books—after all, most are on reserve in Lamont—in favor of spending on non-academic pursuits, whether those are concerts, nights out with friends, spring break trips, or furniture. Students seem to be doing just that: a survey of students on financial aid showed that they only spent $600 a year on books.
The Course Cost Assistance Program (C-CAP) is designed to ease the dilemma for students faced with the choice between books and social costs. Students whose families make less than $40,000 per year would be given an additional $125 and those with a family income under $60,000 would receive $75. However, these stipends would only be valid at the Coop (and in the textbook department, specifically), to ensure that students must spend the money on books. The proposal has received widespread support from the student body—it received a strong endorsement from the Undergraduate Council and its petition has been signed by over 1,000 students.
C-CAP is worthy of University support. Due to their central role in a Harvard education, textbooks should not be categorized together with food, office supplies, and other personal expenses. A separate allotment for books is a step in the right direction.
Administrators, however, have legitimate concerns about creating stipends for various student expenses. Each student’s needs are unique, and creating exceptions for specific needs could be a slippery slope toward a “shampoo budget” from the Financial Aid Office. But, already, exceptions are made for special cases like winter coats or the Student Events Fund, which pays for tickets to campus events which students on financial aid might not otherwise be able to attend. We believe textbooks belong in that the same category. They are not a personal expense—they are a unique and costly educational necessity that deserves to be treated separately.
If Harvard funds C-CAP without reducing the personal expenses stipend, it will improve an already generous financial aid program. The leaders of C-CAP have already secured an anonymous and annual donation of $100,000 to support the program. With $100,000 more from Harvard, C-CAP will become a reality, and Harvard will reassure its students that it is committed to ensuring that its low-income students receive an education and overall college experience commensurate to their peers.
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Make Books AccessibleOur current system effectively provides a tiered system where academic flexibility is only available to those with the means to pursue it.