Fixing Harvard's Low-Cost Fallacy

The number one thing Harvard could do for low-income students is eliminate the College’s regressive work expectation.

Walter “Frankie” Hill ’19 is a Government concentrator in Quincy House.

The Harvard Financial Aid Office website boasts that 20 percent of students’ families pay nothing to attend the College. The College likes to play up this statistic to encourage poorer students to consider applying. This claim makes it sound like low-income students can come here for free, but that’s misleading. While my “family” hasn’t been required to pay anything for me to attend Harvard, I personally will have paid $18,400 to the College by the end of my time here, despite being on full financial aid.  

Most of that cost comes from an annual fee called the “work expectation.” Every student on financial aid, regardless of income or assets, is expected to pay the College a flat $3,000, every year, according to the College’s Net Price Calculator. If you’re American, another $1,600 is added to account for your “Summer Earnings.” This fee is applied regardless of whether you find a job, and there is no obvious way to appeal or waive it. That means that the poorest student in the United States, receiving Harvard’s best possible financial aid package, will still owe the College $4,600 for a year of education. 

Don’t get me wrong; Harvard’s financial aid is generous. Compared to other four-year nonprofit institutions, I am still paying much less than the national average. By the time I graduate, the HFAO will have gifted me over a quarter of a million dollars; I will never, ever, take that for granted. Nevertheless, the work expectation fee misleads the College’s poorest students — undermining low income students’ financial stability in an extremely regressive manner. 

This is exacerbated by unfair application of the fee. Harvard’s wealthiest students are exempt from the work expectation. Instead, because their parents are deemed more able to pay, they pick up the cost of the fee, according to the College’s Net Price Calculator. Essentially, rich students are encouraged to pay the fee with their parents’ money, while poor students are expected to work for it. 

This creates a subtle system of social stratification among Harvard students. The 45 percent of undergraduates that are wealthy enough to afford Harvard without need-based aid are not required to work; the College encourages them to spend their parents’ money to buy extra time for final clubs or extracurriculars or studying or sleep. Meanwhile, low-income students are compelled by the terms of their financial aid offer to work, whether they want to or not. Does this inequality reflect the real world? Sure. Is it something that Harvard should be deliberately exacerbating through official College policy? Of course not.


In the document that explains the work expectation, the HFAO states that “65% of all Harvard students chose to work during the year.” This is not true. For the 20 percent of students on full financial aid, there was little choice involved in the matter. Those students need to work during the year in order to pay the fee and continue studying at the College. Some among the next poorest 35 percent, who are all on limited aid, are likely in the same boat.  

The only choice the College openly offers low-income students is between taking out a subsidized student loan, searching for outside scholarship money, or dedicating an estimated 10 to 12 hours a week to work off the fee. Each of these options is doable, but it’s sad that any are necessary in the first place. A college as wealthy as Harvard doesn’t need to indebt its students, ask them to rely on outside charity, or force them into the labor market. These false choices only exist because the College, as it indicated in its own Net Price Calculator, has a fee solely applied to the poorest 55 percent of its students.

Moreover, the concept of a work “expectation” is patronizing. While Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana is perfectly fine telling us “you all belong here,” the fee tells us “you need to earn your stay.”

I don’t need a reminder from Harvard that this education requires sacrifice; I accepted that fact when I left my chronically-ill single-mother and two little sisters alone, in poverty, halfway across the country. I don’t need the College to remind me that I need a job. The holes in my shoes do that just fine. The median family income at the College is ten times what my household earns; In the four years I’ve spent on campus, I’ve watched gentrification drive out the last few affordable restaurants in Harvard Square, struggled to pay for summer storage, failed to afford a ticket home for a single Thanksgiving or spring break, and taken countless classes without the required textbooks because it was cheaper to rely on online summaries. In an increasingly unaffordable environment, expecting low-income students, who desperately need to build up savings for the next step in their lives, to pay an annual $3,000 fee is damning. 

And that’s why abolishing the work expectation fee is the number one thing Harvard can do for low-income students. Right now, the College is workshopping a program that would give those on full aid $2,000 every year. These “startup grants,” would provide Harvard’s poorest with a $1,000 check at the beginning of each semester. Instead of doing that, why doesn’t the College just let us keep the $1,500 that it effectively takes away from us every semester? 

The College should give its poorest students the same benefit that it already gives its richest, and bundle the work expectation into normal tuition costs. Then, it should cover that price increase with financial aid. That would go a long way towards making Harvard a more affordable and more equitable place for people on my end of the income bracket.

Walter “Frankie” Hill ’19 is a Government concentrator in Quincy House.