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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.

Updated Sept. 6, 2018 at 12:50 a.m.

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 contributed an estimated $18,400 to my education by the end of my time here, despite being on full financial aid.  

Most of that cost comes from an annual $3,000 requirement called the “work expectation.”. Every student on financial aid, regardless of income or assets, is expected to work off this amount, according to the College’s Net Price Calculator. Most of the $3,000 contribution does not go directly to the College, but rather towards one’s own “personal expenses” — such as books and travel costs. For a low income student, that cost is burdensome. 

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 undermines low income students’ financial stability in an extremely regressive manner. 

Unfair application of the expectation is the main culprit. 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, 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. 

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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 fulfill the expectation 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 an expectation 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. 

And that’s why abolishing the work expectation 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 at the beginning of their freshman year. These “startup grants,” while an important step, only go a fraction of the way toward covering student expenses over the course of a four-year education.

The College should put its poorest students on a more equal footing with its richest, and bolster its startup grant program to more substantially cover expected student costs. That would go a long way towards making the College 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. 

Correction: Sept. 6, 2018

A previous version of this op-ed incorrectly indicated students on full financial aid pay the College the annual $3,000 work expectation. In fact, the requirement is intended to cover unbilled expenses including living and textbook costs.

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