On Thursday, the Class of 2015 will pass from the ranks of Harvard undergraduates into the ranks of Harvard alumni. This end of senior year is undoubtedly a sentimental period for many, a time of reflection, nostalgia, and anticipation as college ends.
Along with the major milestone of college graduation comes one additional opportunity: Senior Gift. An annual tradition described by the Harvard Alumni Association somewhat euphemistically as “an opportunity to educate Harvard students about the importance and impact of alumni giving,” the Senior Gift permits seniors to make a small, restricted-use donation to Harvard. Though the marketing surrounding this year’s Senior Gift was controversial and unhelpful, the notion of a graduation gift remains a productive way for students to give back to an institution from which they have benefited.
All the same, this year's Senior Gift campaign fell short of its potential. It seemed to veer dangerously into peer pressure and shaming to collect the token donations the University sees as so formative. By encouraging those who donated to change their public Facebook profile pictures and approaching individuals in dining halls when surrounded by friends to ask if they have given, organizers too often appeared more interested in reaching a participation target than respecting their classmates’ individual abilities and inclinations to give.
Still, the concept of a Senior Gift is valuable. After four years at Harvard, everyone has benefited in one way or another from the school—living in a great House community, playing for an excellent sports team, gaining terrific academic experience, or simply picking up a prestigious diploma. Yes, there is no debt to repay, and Harvard has no right to donations. But after four years, nearly all undergraduates likely look fondly on some aspect of their college experience, and may want to ensure that others get the same chances they had.
The Senior Gift is not intended as a financially significant way for graduating students to fill Harvard’s coffers. It is a truth universally acknowledged that Harvard has quite a lot of money, and five dollar gifts by seniors are unlikely to move that needle. But the issue should not be conceptualized through the lens of the endowment; after all, Harvard makes clear that the Senior Gift does not go toward it. Instead, it is a way—part symbolic, part impressively tangible—to quite literally pay it forward. If five students gave a 20-dollar restricted financial aid gift, that would be enough to pay for a textbook for an entering freshman. Multiplied by the size of the graduating class, that makes a difference.
Today, fundraising makes Harvard’s revolutionary financial aid initiative possible. It supports cutting-edge life-saving research in medicine, environmental science, and public policy. It ensures the lights are on and the water comes out of the faucet. And, yes, it also pays for the one-ply toilet paper, spotty WiFi, and tomato-basil ravioli soup. Harvard’s fundraising is not an end in itself—it’s an attempt to enable the teaching and research from which we have all benefited. Harvard wants to help seniors to chip in towards that mission. We should applaud that.