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September 21, 2014 | by  | in Features |
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The Gates Within

As we continue to tackle issues of accessibility and inequality here at Vic, it’s useful to look outwards to other universities and their efforts to deal with these problems.The Crimson is the student newspaper at Harvard University. Salient got in touch with them for this issue. This piece, originally written for The Crimson, provides fascinating insights into both the inequities at Harvard and the novel ways in which Harvard has attempted to deal with those problems.

Last fall, the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid released a promotional video targeted at prospective applicants to the College called ‘Anything Could Happen at Harvard’. Scene by scene, the 16-minute video paints a cheerful and diverse image of an undergraduate experience rife with possibility. Once you are here, the video suggests, the broad spectrum of Harvard experiences is yours for the taking, no matter your background.

Yet, for those who come from low-income backgrounds, not all elements of the undergraduate experience are as fully accessible as they are for their wealthier classmates, in spite of the College’s recent efforts to open its gates to an increasingly diverse group of students.

Ten years into an initiative that has made Harvard’s the most robust financial aid program in the country and likely contributed to the matriculation of the College’s most diverse classes in its 377-year history, the gap between Harvard’s poor and its overwhelmingly affluent student body has become a pervasive part of undergraduate life.

Class background – while no longer as significant a factor in the ability to afford a Harvard education – still plays a large part in determining students’ experiences on a campus dominated by peers far wealthier than the average American. Socioeconomic status subtly shapes undergraduate life in a myriad of ways, as personal finances and class background influence students’ abilities to join student groups and otherwise partake in the experience idealized in brochures.

Many students from low-income households say that the financial barriers they bump up against everyday influence their sense of belonging at an institution that prides itself on inclusiveness.

Students rich and poor describe a reality that contradicts the message Harvard broadcasts to prospective applicants when it claims that anything, for anyone, can happen here.
“‘Anything can happen at Harvard’ – that is such an empty statement to me,” says Keyanna Y. Wigglesworth ’16, who says that she receives significant financial aid from the College. “That’s such a Harvard thing to say – ‘anything can happen here.’ No, it can’t, because people come from all different types of places in the world and walks of life.”


Harvard is undoubtedly a national leader in offering financial aid to its undergraduates, a fact well-broadcasted both within its gates and beyond them. Launched in 2004, the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative today gives 20 per cent of undergraduates – those with household incomes less than $65,000 – the chance to attend the College almost for free, with no expected parental contribution.

Administrators tout the program as key to promoting class diversity at Harvard. And as the University celebrates the initiative’s ten-year anniversary, it also prepares to welcome its most racially diverse class of students ever to campus this fall.

“Harvard is much more diverse today than it was even a few years ago and we continue to bolster our efforts to make Harvard even more diverse in the years ahead,” Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 writes in an email.

Indeed, Harvard goes beyond any legal obligation in providing financial assistance to its students and promoting accessibility to its educational resources. Even so, despite the rise in socioeconomic diversity the College has seen since starting the Financial Aid Initiative a decade ago, its student body today is still far from representative of the country’s income distribution as a whole, as Harvard students are disproportionately upper class.

In The Crimson’s 2013 survey of the Class of 2017, 15 per cent of respondents reported an annual family income of less than $40,000 – a much smaller proportion than the US as a whole. Meanwhile, 14 per cent of respondents reported family incomes of more than $500,000; by contrast, fewer than one per cent of American households fall within this range.
Even Harvard’s middle-income students earn at least two and a half times the amount that the median American household brings in during a given year, the survey shows. About 70 per cent of respondents said their family income was over $80,000. The median household income in the US, by point of comparison, was just $51,371 in 2012, according to the US Census Bureau.

Those statistics offer a glimpse of a freshman class disproportionately filled with students from upper-middle and upper-class households, and comparatively few on the other end of the spectrum, leaving disadvantaged students to navigate a campus dominated – statistically, at least – by peers who hail from backgrounds more affluent than their own.


When prospective students, no matter their socioeconomic status, receive letters informing them of their acceptance to Harvard, for a moment they hold in their fingertips the ticket to all the resources and opportunities that a Harvard education has to offer. And when generous financial aid packages enable them to accept that offer, students from low-income backgrounds can look forward to four years at an institution that for most of its history has been reserved for society’s socioeconomically elite.

The College supplements students’ financial aid packages with a number of programs to help them buy and rent winter coats and computers, respectively, and advise them on available resources to aid them in their transition.

Even before students arrive on campus, administrators in the Freshman Dean’s Office will have prepared to facilitate a comfortable transition for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, creating socioeconomically diverse entryways and making sure not to pair a student who receives no financial aid and a student on “extreme aid” together in a two-person room.

But even as administrators sort students into residential settings over the summer, students have already begun sorting themselves along class lines.

While wealthier students are free to spend their summer traveling the globe or diving into internship experiences, for those facing serious financial constraints, delaying the arrival to Cambridge can be out of the question. Where the rich can choose from a range of pre-orientation programs in the arts, outdoors, or service, for those who need to earn money, there is often only one option. The chance to earn a few hundred dollars before the term begins can be difficult to pass up.

Regardless of whether or not they participate in pre-orientation programming, students from low-income households arriving on campus for Opening Days may find that interactions with their wealthier peers can amount to a culture shock, creating, for some, an early sense of alienation.

“My freshman year, I was just really acutely aware that I didn’t belong with the overwhelming majority of people that were here,” says Cody R. Dean ’14, who arrived in 2010 from a low-income household in West Virginia.

Matthew Wozny ’14 says that coming from this sort of background can put students at unease among wealthier individuals whom he saw displaying a sort of “etiquette” he had not seen before. As a result, he felt that he spoke in a way that some classmates did not find appropriate.

Jesse G. Sanchez ’14, a first-generation college student from San Diego, was surprised by the way students dressed at Harvard. In preparation for his freshman year, he purchased a number of large, unmarked, colored T-shirts – called “club pro” or “shocker” tees – to convey a sense of seriousness about his schoolwork. He planned to iron them each morning before class.

When he came to campus, however, he found that his style set him apart from peers he saw wearing collared shirts and brands such as Ralph Lauren instead. Sanchez says he felt out of place at first – and an interaction with a classmate early on that year only served to exacerbate that feeling.

“I think that there are these small moments where you realize, wow, I really stick out,” Sanchez says. “I think moments like that are very eye-opening.”

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