The Harvard disadvantage
Despite outreach, the needy face socioeconomic gulf
By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / May 12, 2009
He was valedictorian of his senior class, and had been accepted at all 13 colleges to which he applied. But when Miguel Garcia entered Harvard University last fall, he felt he didn't belong.
As classmates moved into Harvard Yard that first day with parents - and in some cases, chauffeurs - driving fancy vehicles packed with boxes, Garcia arrived alone. His belongings fit into two suitcases and a backpack. His mother, a worker at an industrial laundry, and father, a janitor at a Detroit casino, could not afford the trip.
"Everyone else seemed so polished and entitled and seamlessly adapting," Garcia recalled. "It just felt like they'd been here their whole lives. I was really intimidated. I didn't feel like I had anything in common."
Students of modest means have attended Harvard on scholarship for decades. But with the school making an unprecedented push to recruit more of them by offering virtually free rides, the number of students from families making less than $60,000 a year has surged 30 percent over the last five years - to about one-fifth of all Harvard students.
As it increases its outreach to such students, Harvard is doing more to help them adjust to campus life and address the disconnect that many experience on arrival, said William Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid, who himself was a scholarship student at Harvard.
To make the transition easier, Harvard has quietly expanded a fund that students can tap to pay for such things as admission to dorm dances, tutoring, winter coats, even plane tickets home. Financially, at least, their four years at Harvard would appear to be worry-free, as the school covers tuition, room, and board - close to $50,000 a year. The university has nearly doubled its investment in financial aid since 2004.
Socially, though, less-fortunate students must gingerly navigate a minefield of class chasms on a campus still brimming with legacies and wealth.
Jim Crossen, a Harvard senior from Davenport, Iowa, recalls that he balked during freshman year when his choir required students to don tuxedos for concerts.
"No one ever told me I was poor until I got to Harvard," Crossen said. "It was that culture of saying, 'Just wear your tux.' I don't even own a suit - still."
Even when he discovered that the choir has money to help members in a pinch, Crossen was too embarrassed to ask. He bought a tuxedo for $80 at a bargain basement - it smelled like a basement, too - spending wages from his part-time job at the law school library.
And while many of his classmates went hiking on Harvard-organized trips just before the start of freshman year, Crossen chose to spend the week earning $11 an hour scrubbing toilets in Harvard dorms. He later stopped buying textbooks, using the library instead to save $400 a semester.
It can be difficult to discern the neediest students. There's no support group or club for them - many students prefer not to reveal their socioeconomic standing. The university keeps a list of them, available only to Harvard financial aid officials, to try to meet their needs throughout their undergraduate years, be it emergency money for a root canal or a loan for test-prep courses, an interview suit, or travel while studying abroad.
"You can't take a kid who's lived in the ghetto for 18 years and just make them feel OK now," Garcia said. "But other people say, 'Why are you complaining? You're at Harvard. You have a full ride. And when you graduate, you'll be just like us.' "
Instead of pretending everyone is equal, he said, the university should encourage more candid conversations about the sensitive topic of wealth and poverty. Garcia would like to see Harvard form a support network for students like himself who want the camaraderie, and establish an office to help them adjust.
Harvard officials acknowledge there is more to be done. During orientation next fall, new students will be asked to discuss readings about class differences and privilege, said Thomas Dingman, dean of freshmen.
"The makeup of Harvard has changed a lot, and this is something we can do to address some of the issues of socioeconomic diversity," Dingman said.
Two weekends ago, recently admitted low- and moderate-income students gathered at the campus pub for a special reception. They drank Shirley Temples, picked up free pocket guides on how to survive Harvard on a shoestring budget, and grilled current scholarship students about their experiences.
Rosario Santillana, a Los Angeles student, said she would not have visited Harvard if the university had not paid for her flight. "As far as money goes, Harvard spoils you," Santillana concluded.