Harvard’s “Let Them Eat Veritas”: Richest University’s Poor Students Shafted as School Provides Spotty, Inadequate Help as It Throws Them Out of Dorms and Jobs

Harvard University should be ashamed of itself. It has dumped the problem of its sudden closure due to coronavirus largely on the students themselves and their families. While most of them are affluent enough to handle the financial fallout of buying airfare at the last minute and storing or shipping their clothes, books, and other possessions, Harvard’s students from lower income backgrounds have, to a significant degree, been left in the lurch.

I learned about this train wreck via an e-mail from a foundation affiliated with my undergraduate house1 asking for alumni to pitch in:

As some of you already know, the College suddenly announced yesterday in the middle of exam week that due to the COVID outbreak, all students must leave their dorms by Sunday and that classes would resume online sometime next week. This has placed incredible strains on everyone—staff, student professors alike,—but particularly on our lower income, first generation students, as you can read in the Crimson. These days the College no longer provides free summer storage, and this crisis requires students to pay to store or ship their things, as well as to buy airline tickets home on short notice. While the financial aid office has made some funding available for tickets, many of the our students have fallen through the cracks. Additionally some of our international students who can’t return home will have to remain isolated on campus, and others will be returning home to areas with slow or no internet service which will make participating in online classes next to impossible. To make matters worse, all of the students who were working term-time are now unemployed.

This really is one colossal mess.

Therefore the Foundation has decided to step in and help purchase plane tickets for students, cover storage/shipping costs, and make individual grants based on need. We have already distributed 2K in grants to Adams students, with several thousand more pending, and if funding permits, would like to expand our outreach to our freshmen, who are particularly hard hit.

The Harvard Crimson piece mentioned in the e-mail describes in detail how low-income students have been turfed out, framing as students having been given an eviction notice on Tuesday to get out by Sunday. The school will not reopen after spring break. Key details:

Some students must ship or store their on-campus belongings without financial support from Harvard. Others who planned to stay on campus must now book unexpected flights home and accrue additional costs. And those who rely on term-time employment must confront additional financial concerns as they lose their primary sources of income….

“Harvard prides itself on having a massive student body that is a large percentage on financial aid,” [“Nick”} Wyville said. “I think that they forget that those are the same students who often come from home situations that are uncomfortable.”

First-generation students constitute 15 percent of Harvard’s undergraduate population; more than 20 percent of students are on full financial aid at the College, according to Primus’s statement.

James A. Bedford ’20 — who is on full financial aid — said he usually holds several jobs at Harvard simultaneously in order to support himself, working roughly 15 to 20 hours a week. His roles have included serving as a Peer Advising Fellow, a Learning Lab Fellow at the the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, and an instructor for SCRB 78: “Science Communication,” among others.

“I haven’t even been able to think about the realities of the lost income and the money that I won’t be able to make,” he said….

Wyville — who hails from Anniston, Ala. — said online courses are not feasible for him and some of his peers from rural or low-income areas, where many homes do not have internet access.

“It’s not as if we can just like up and go to the library or the coffee shop every day,” he said.

“The only equalizer at Harvard is the fact that we all live together and have the same accommodation. We live together, we eat the same food, we have the same faculty resources,” Wyville added. “But if you take away campus living and residential life then you take away that equalizer.”

In wake of the announcement, many students offered their homes to peers who require housing via a Google spreadsheet that connects undergraduates seeking housing with those who can provide it. As of Tuesday night, over 80 students signed up on the spreadsheet, including information about the number of beds they have available.

Others have called on Harvard administrators to offer students greater support. Barton, Olvera, and several other students penned an open letter to the administration Tuesday on behalf of a new student group, Harvard Undergraduates for Decent and Urgent Accommodations.

The letter condemns administrators for demanding students make sudden travel plans that “exhaust” their resources and put unexpected financial pressure on their families, as well as process “tremendously expensive” shipping fees.

The Harvard dream has just turned into a nightmare for many of these scholarship students. Let’s not even go into what happens to adjuncts, who also depended on the university for a regular paycheck and in many cases, housing too.

Admittedly students all over the US are having their lives upended not just by classes being cancelled, but by them being told to get out of their dorms pronto. See this scene from the University of Dayton:

But Harvard’s conduct is indefensible. Harvard has, or perhaps more accurately had, a nearly $39 billion endowment. Contrast that with an exceedingly generous estimate of what it might cost to help make these financially stressed undergraduates whole, at least in terms of getting out of Cambridge, or for the ones who really can’t go home (flights to their country cancelled), putting them up. Harvard has 6,800 undergraduates. Assume 25% get significant financial support. Even a gold plated solution would cost at most $10,000.

6,800 x .25 x $10,000 = $17 million.

That is couch lint for Harvard.

As the University of Dayton example attests, university and college closures are widespread. For the well-endowed ones who have students attending only by virtue of having received financial aid and/or having the school arrange for paid employment to help pay for their tuition, the failure of the school to provide generous help is a disgrace.

At Harvard, the afflicted students are petitioning the university to let them store things on campus for free (which was standard practice in my day) and let the ones who can’t go home stay on campus. How many could that possibly be? 200 at most? Harvard has a medical center that won’t have anything to do once the kids leave. How hard would it be for their staff to check these students’ temperatures daily and test anyone who had symptoms?

And the university will have enough empty rooms that it could easily set aside other dorm rooms if quarantine were needed.

But the Harvard disregard is a sign of where things are likely to go in the US. A university is supposed to be a community. They are more cohesive than most of our cities and towns. Yet a crisis comes, and the grotesquely well paid university administrators can’t be bothered either to make creative use of resources at hand, or dip in Harvard’s huge pot of money.

In other words, expect the rich to walk all over the poor out of indifference, as we are seeing at Harvard now.


1 Harvard houses and Yale colleges are groups of dormitories, each with their own adminisphere (such as a faculty dean a resident dean, a house tutor), their own kitchen and dining room, a common room, a library, and other amenities. They are modeled on the Cambridge and Oxford college system. At Harvard, a house has roughly 300 to 400 students.

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  1. Michael

    The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed. Get Out!

    Just got notice I am next up at my library for Wm Gibson’s new book, Agency.

    $17M is a rounding error yet the wealthy feel its too much to ask.

    Bill Gates $5M stills rankles me…

  2. bmeisen

    Are we hearing the American “college experience” bubble popping? In this fantasy, youth buy products that are packaged as educational experiences. They pay through the nose for them and they are blind to their folly because they believe that the stamped and signed receipt of payment handed to them with great pomp and circumstance will boost their future earning potential to the degree necessary so that they can some day lead lives that are free of educational debt, which until then will of course involve interest costs (compounded) as we do not want socialism.
    Why exactly doesn’t Harvard charge 1 million? They could get it and they’d only have customers who can deal gracefully with situations like this.

    1. Enrico Malatesta

      Although Harvard (and other esteemed Universities) are selling ‘exclusivity’, the veneer of egalitarianism is still required for the Brand.

      Two Random Thoughts:

      I’d like to know the graduation statistics of those college students that entered through the Admissions Scandle.

      The Harvard Endowment is an important pool of shadow money, never forget it was the Harvard Fund that ‘bought’ the worthless Arbusto (Harken Energy) stock that enabled Dubya to get his stake to become Texas Rangers managing general partner, and then Governor, and then front man for Dick Cheney.

      1. Larry Y

        At many US elite academic institutions, the hardest part is getting in (exceptions usually in “hard science”, engineering, etc.). Also, they probably have all the the help they need to graduate.

  3. Dave

    Come to California. Harvard is dead! You’ll get a better education and the weather doesn’t suck. Harvard stopped being relevant over a decade ago.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Uh, no, Harvard is still the top ranked school on all sorts of metrics.

      And Stanford abruptly went to online only classes, so they likely have dislocations too but I have no idea if they tried harder to help lower income students. Then again, I also do not know know if Stanford has as many scholarship students.

    2. Anon

      Actually, don’t come to California for higher education. Housing, traffic, cycling risks, and,now, Covid-19 is getting worse. The UC/CalState system can’t provide access to it’s own in-state high school students that qualify for entry.

  4. The Rev Kev

    This is brutal this. They could have helped their own students using only the money in their petty cash drawer and they said nope! I suppose that this is a lesson for those Harvard students that is pretty simple. If you have money so this move is not a problem for you, then that is the way that it is supposed to be. If you are studying here and are in a precarious position then it is all on you. Pure power politics.

    It would be ironic if down the track that Harvard produced a Bill Gates from the later group that went on to achieve fabulous wealth. But that this future alumni, when asked by Harvard for money for them, would say sure – and give a massive contribution to Yale and call it the 2020 Corona Fund.

  5. GM

    I too was an undergrad at an institution in the Cambridge area, and I am not from the US.

    Got a full financial aid, but that does not fully cover your housing and does not at all cover your food or other expenses, so you had to work during the term to make it.

    And you had to move out of the dorm in the summer. Fortunately, in our particular dorm, there was storage in the basement of the dorm, so we did not have to look for outside storage, but others were not so lucky.

    But moving out at the end of the term was still a major disruption that one had to plan for well in advance.

    So I am very well aware of the situation undergrads at Harvard find themselves in, and my first thought when I saw the news was “WTF are these students supposed to do now?”.

    Especially the international ones. Because a day after Harvard announces that students are kicked out of the dorms, what does Trump do? Bans travel from Europe for 30 days. Which effectively means banning traveling TO Europe too, because those are all round-trip flights. This is on top of the travel restrictions regarding several countries in Asia already in place.

    In the best of times, it was always near-impossible to find a flight on such a short notice. Now when so many flights have been cancelled, how is one supposed to go home, when there are thousands of others in the same situation (because Harvard isn’t the only university that is doing this)? It is not even a possibility for many, forget the expenses. There are simply no flights. And most of these students don’t even have a car to sleep in.

    I will venture a guess regarding why this is done — they don’t want to get sued by litigious-minded parents if undergrads get it while on campus. Which, admittedly, there is a high chance of happening, unless they self-isolated the whole campus (but that would have created a legal mess on a whole new level). Dorms often have 2, 3, 4 students living in the same room, and the virus is very clearly airborne, so it would also get between rooms through the air seeping beneath the doors (which is why in China quarantines involve sealing the doors with tape). Also, bathrooms are shared across the whole floor, which is another transmission risk.

    So the administration took the easy decision — instead of trying to help the student population, and start that early on when it was the time to do so (i.e. mid-February), which would have involved some effort and risk on its part, it just dumped the problem onto the students…

  6. PlutoniumKun

    Thats quite disgusting – I’m assuming it is fear of litigation that is driving this.

    I was in Trinity College Dublin last night for an evening class – the nearest Ireland would have to a Harvard (except, as the grads there would no doubt add ‘with about 300 more years of history and teaching experience’). They had a Covid case in, ironically enough, the biology department last week. But they are acting I think quite responsibly – phasing in a slow shutdown – all lectures have gone online, but small tutorials, etc., still going on, with lots of support for foreign students. They were actually criticised for being over the top (there are still plenty of people who still ‘don’t get it’ and sadly many are in a position of authority.)

    1. GM

      Litigation is certainly a big part of it.

      The other aspect might be health insurance

      Students are on university plans. Which tend to not be that great, because it is a young and healthy population.

      When catastrophic situations have arisen in the past on campus (which happens regularly, several times a year in fact), the university has often been stuck with the bill, especially with international students.

      And it will be a lot of long ICU stays to pay for in the coming months, even among the young and healthy.

      1. Louis Fyne

        I think you’re right w/health insurance. plans are likely self-insured and not modeled to have a cohort students popping into the ICU. Then add rash panic.

        Smaller colleges I can kinda understand, Harvard? give me a break

    2. CLP

      I’m an alum of Fair Harvard as well, and in my experience litigation isn’t what they care about so much as negative publicity. If a student gets the virus on campus, Harvard’s name is the headline; if it happens off campus, Harvard maybe gets mentioned in the story.

      Their approach to sexual assault victims and students with mental health issues is the same. Their unwritten message is “You can commit suicide for all we care, but please don’t do it here so it looks like our fault.”

  7. Adam1

    It seems like almost all colleges and universitys will be moving to the online solution, but you can tell it’s a decision made by some administrators who really don’t get it. Online classes may be a substitute for lecture, but they wont fill the needs of art students (like my wife who laughed at hearing this idea), science and engineering majors or anyone who needs other facilities and equipment to actually complete work – your oven at home wont replace a kiln as my wife says.

    1. Left in Wisconsin

      I would disagree that the administrators don’t get it. On their list of priorities, “avoiding huge lawsuits” is a much higher priority than “providing quality instruction to students.” I have been in and around higher ed for the last 30 years and it’s not clear to me that the latter is even on the list.

  8. Louis Fyne

    Online classes for the yes of the year–mmmm, ok….but closing dorms? that is just insane and against the medical evidence (aka seniors are the most at risk, under-40, while not immune, are in infinitely better shape than those over 70 and/or those w/health issues).

    And Dorms are (generally) like typical apartment complexes, not military barracks.

    If anything, keeping students (aka asymptomatic, mobile, disease vectors) away from seniors is the absolutely best thing for society. just saying

    1. Anon

      Sending the students home promotes the “OK Boomer Revenge” aspect of the this novel coronavirus.

      (OK Boomer Revenge: older voters with Medicare being impacted greater than younger voters w/o Medicare.)

  9. Democrita

    I have a child at UC Santa Cruz, hotbed of striking teaching assistants. We are coming up on spring break and last night had a talk with him about what to do. There are risks to flying home. There are risks to staying at school. But the latter risks are compounded by the fact that we don’t know what the school admin will do.

    If he comes home for spring break, will he be able to go back? If he can’t, what happens to his stuff? If he stays, will they be allowed to remain in the dorms? And what happens in September? I am sure he will not want to change schools now that he has established friendships and a sense of place. I don’t want to pay $66,000 per year—an effort that involves his parents and both sets of grandparents—for him to take online classes. I have been a university teacher, so I know exactly what those are worth. :)

    At least we can afford it, and we have friends in Cali if he gets stuck there. This action by Harvard is unconscionable. Then again, if Harvard had a conscience, it wouldn’t be Harvard. But UCSC, based on its treatment of the striking TAs, doesn’t have a conscience either.

    I have a handful of relatives who voted for Biden, too, and I just want to punch them all in the face. Idjits. Hooray for ecocide! Onward to mass extinction! Guess the kid won’t need that college education after all. Maybe we can use the money to send him to survival school.

    1. Randy G

      Wow! $66,000! For a supposedly public university.
      I went to UC Santa Cruz, admittedly a few decades ago, and I was paying something like $2000 a year.
      The U.S. is making incredible progress — just all of it heading off in the wrong direction…and toward the edge of the cliff.
      Very soon your local library–should it still exist — can file The Road Warrior in the documentary section.
      Good luck to you and your children. And give your Biden loving relatives a friendly punch for me.

        1. JBird4049

          IIRC, it still means 24k per a year at UC Berkeley just for tuition, which ain’t chump change. Add in rent at about 20k plus books, fees, clothing, transportation, and whatever else makes it easily over fifty thousand dollars per year.

          1. Anon

            Here’s a link to UCBerkeley undergrad annual costs (estimated):

            Out-of-state fees are $30K above in-state. That’s UCB. At UC Santa Cruz in-state commuter student costs are estimated to be ~ $30K/yr.

            My local community college estimates the costs for in-state commuter students to be $15K/yr.

    2. Left in Wisconsin

      But UCSC, based on its treatment of the striking TAs, doesn’t have a conscience either.

      This is the key point. The neoliberalization of the U.S. university – “public” as well as private – has been clear for quite awhile but there are strong ideological pressures not to see it, not least by all the brainiacs who exist on college campuses.

      My prediction is that most U administrations will issue guidance to faculty to give students full credit for all courses this semester (regardless of how much work actually gets done). The smart ones are looking ahead to the fall and trying to figure out what to do if enrollment/tuition, state aid and research funding crash, which seems pretty likely if things are not back to normal shortly. The 2008 crash turned out to be a godsend to higher ed, driving huge numbers of unemployed back to school for “re-training.” But that bubble only lasted a couple of years and enrollment trends have been steeply downward since 2010-11. The last five years have already seen, again mostly uncommented on, the beginnings of a shake-out (some schools closing, lots of changing emphasis to programs that can bring cash in the door, ubiquitous move to adjuncts instead of permanent faculty). Expect that to ramp up considerably. Ironically, perhaps the only counter-trend has been a HUGE increase in the number of Chinese students (of which there are now apparently about 5K at my Big 10 U) paying full freight. Can that continue?

      1. Anon

        Well, California does have standards. Getting course credit will require completing 80% of the course curricula. Since the UC System is on the Quarter system (12 weeks, not 15) the UCSC students have likely passed that threshold.

        Encouraging International students to attend at out-of-state tuition rates is now standard operating procedure in California. The new president of my local community college unabashedly said it in a recent letter that it was necessary. The college needs to eliminate its $5M budget deficit by 2022. (Real estate investors are salivating: student housing, apartments, and SF Home speculation, etc.)

  10. Mark D

    Harvard’s endowment is only $40 billion. How can you expect an institution with only $40 billion in the bank to spend money to help poor students?

    1. Kiers

      Your line is better than Pink Floyd’s: How can you have any puddin if you don’t eat your meat, you can’t have any puddin if you don’t eat your meat.

    1. Kiers

      yes……there we have it: a managerial, (albeit ivy-league), short sighted NIMBYISM. But then again, this is Larry Summers’ school. Let them eat cake eh?

  11. Mattski

    Harvard is pretty much the outright enemy, in my view. During the Bread & Roses strike in Lawrence Harvard students were mustered to go and beat up workers and “defend their class interests.” Redoubt of reaction, and I have three friends who went there. Built by slaves, funded by slavery, attended by slave owners early. . .

    Do you know how Michigan became ‘the Harvard of the Midwest’? (Only recently learned this.) Because Jewish kids turned away by Harvard went there.

    I think that those kids at Dayton might have been rioting because they had some hope their school might emerge the NCAA basketball champion.

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