When Parents Will Not Pay

Danielle E. O'Neil

When parents refuse to pay Harvard tuition, undergraduates and Harvard administrators can find themselves in a difficult situation.

Take Jessica. After her parents told her that they wouldn’t pay their expected contribution, she enrolled at Harvard anyway. Here, she has spent three-and-a-half years studying as a full-time student at the College and working multiple jobs, sometimes totalling up to 40 hours of work a week.

Jessica, whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, is one of a handful of students at the College whose parents have refused to pay the expected parent contribution included in their financial aid packages. Though Jessica’s parents, one of whom is a doctor, do not contribute to the cost of her education, the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid still insists that she pay between $16,000 to $20,000 a year out of her own pocket.

“The College’s attitude is ‘your dad is a doctor, why aren’t your parents helping?’ In that sense, it can be really frustrating,” Jessica said of her situation. “Just because the parent contribution is called the parent contribution, you don’t know about my family.”

Still, Jessica and others who face similar situations recognize that a parent refusing to pay tuition is a problem with no easy solution.


Director of Financial Aid Sally C. Donahue says her office works to be “fair and equitable,” aiming to support students whose parents will not contribute to the cost of tuition. But Harvard—and many other colleges with generous financial aid offerings—make students undergo a rigorous process that includes counseling before considering waiving the family’s financial obligations to the school. Donahue says conflicts between parents and their children rarely reach the point where the University accepts that a parent will not pay.


Two thirds of Harvard students will graduate from the College with no debt. That won’t be the case for Jessica.

Four years ago—before she ever sat down to eat in Annenberg Hall—her parents told her that they wouldn’t pay for her to go to Harvard. After all, she had already been offered generous scholarships from a number of top tier universities. Several schools even gave her a full ride. But, Jessica said, it had to be Harvard.

Looking for advice and help getting student loans, Jessica communicated with Harvard’s Financial Aid Office.

“I found they were judging. What would have been ideal is that they didn’t pass judgment,” Jessica said. “Frankly, it’s none of their business.”

Ultimately, Jessica estimated that she will graduate with between $10,000 and $20,000 in debt, after spending a summer at a top-tier consulting firm and holding down several term-time jobs.

Every week students visit the Financial Aid Office to report new and extenuating circumstances concerning their financial aid package, according to Donahue. While these cases take a variety of forms, Donahue said that the office works with students and families on an individual basis to reach a solution.

“There are a number of situations that can arise that alienate students from their families,” Donahue said. “There’s no formula because you really have to deal with each one these situations individually. Many students are away from home for the first time and are growing in directions that parents might not approve. Consequently, there are bound to be conflicts that arise between students and parents, some of a more severe nature than others.”

In cases where there is an extreme rift between students and parents, the Financial Aid Office refers students to University Health Services and the Bureau of Study Council in hopes that these offices can work to a resolution of the problem.