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Harvard’s Dental Policies Need a Check-Up

By Steven Giraldo
Steven Giraldo ’26, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Elm Yard.

This midterm season, you’ll be hard pressed to find a tranquil, unstressed Harvard student. March is saturated with overlapping deadlines, extracurricular comp meetings, and of course, heavily graded exams. For the majority of students solely focused on being students, the workload is manageable; but for those of us dealing with the excruciating pain of impacted wisdom teeth (without Massachusetts dental insurance), completing assigned work and taking care of personal health feels nearly impossible to balance.

Wisdom teeth are the third set of human molars that typically emerge during the college years, between the ages of 17 to 25. For the fortunate ones, wisdom teeth erupt upright, perfectly aligning with their existing teeth. However, for the unlucky ones like me, our mouths are too cramped for our wisdom teeth to develop correctly. The third molars become entrapped behind the crowded gum or jawbone, resulting in an unbearable pulsating pain from tension and bacterial infections.

As a first-generation low-income student (and immigrant), I never learned the inner workings of the United States healthcare system. Deductibles, copayments, PPO plans, and all other terminologies are — after six years in America — still strange to me. Despite the growing inflammation and pain in my gums, my initial reaction was not marked by concern. I expected that a prestigious institution such as Harvard would prioritize student access to medical care whenever needed, or so I thought.

In Massachusetts (and at Harvard), every student is required by law to have health insurance, whether it is provided by the university or they are covered by a “health plan of comparable coverage.” Based on my understanding, a significant proportion of affluent students already covered by excellent private insurance plans decide to waive their automatic enrollment in the Student Health Insurance Plan to de facto lower their cost of attendance. Conversely, students on significant financial aid, who may lack private health insurance, qualify for need-based grants to offset these expenses.

However, there is a separation between essential health insurance and other medical costs such as dentistry, and the SHIP only provides dental coverage to students until age 19. Despite their inherent necessity, there are no financial aid grants designed to cover “non-essential” medical insurances, regardless of current coverage or financial need.

After a few back-and-forth calls with Harvard University Health Services, unreturned calls to local dental schools, a series of painkillers, and advice to travel back home for wisdom tooth removal surgery, I learned my first hard-to-swallow Harvard reality: While wealthy students have the economic resources to afford private care, and in the worst case scenario, travel to see a doctor over the weekend, I am stuck in Massachusetts, unable to afford neither medical attention nor a plane ticket back home.

As my midterms approach, academics slowly fall on my priority list. The throbbing, pulsating pain in my teeth, gum inflammation, and low appetite remind me that even at an institution like Harvard, my socioeconomic status defines my capacity to succeed. While my peers can study for their exams, all I can do is ponder if my teeth will get any worse.

The Harvard Diversity and Inclusion mission aims to eliminate socioeconomic barriers to Harvard’s transformative experience, ensuring that “where one begins does not determine where one ends. ” Yet the College has failed to address the large number of disparate issues a diverse student body faces. For the first-generation, low-income community, access and understanding of all-encompassing health insurance is not granted, yet personal health is indispensable to reach the famous intellectual transformation Harvard preaches. Not covering dental insurance for students with financial need is a policy failure that hurts only the lower socioeconomic end of Harvard and cultivates inequalities in student potential for academic well-being.

This dental insurance policy is only the tip of the iceberg of Harvard policies that continuously alienate first-generation, low-income students. FGLI individuals come into Harvard unprepared, without reliable and accessible sources of information to navigate complex bureaucratic systems and academic adversity. These differences on the playing field most likely account for the 42 percent of low-income students that, despite attending Harvard, never become wealthy adults.

Teaching students healthcare literacy, especially those whose financial constrictions severely limit their experience within the complex Harvard world, is essential to level the playing field and close the achievement gap between low-income and wealthy Harvard students. This includes ensuring that financial aid covers all forms of medical care — including dental care — that are necessary to fully focus on academics and reach the full potential that Harvard facilitates.

In other words, provide students with the wisdom necessary to succeed, without forcing them to worry about their painful (wisdom) teeth.

Steven Giraldo ’26, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Elm Yard.

CORRECTION: March 1, 2023

A previous version of this story stated that 98.2 percent of low-income students who attend Harvard never become wealthy adults. In fact, the figure is 48 percent.

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