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:
UD students gathered in large crowds on Lowes Street in the South Student Neighborhood Tuesday night in reaction to the news that university housing would close Wednesday for most students due to the spread of the coronavirus. pic.twitter.com/82XL9uCR04
— Flyer News (@FlyerNews) March 11, 2020
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.