The Future of Elite Schools, Continued

Elise Amendola / AP
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Last week I quoted a long dispatch from a Harvard graduate now living in New Haven, on why he thought the Trump era held more perils for elite-level schools like Harvard and Yale than they might be anticipating. Readers chimed in to agree, disagree, and share parallel experiences here.

I’ve received a flood of mail since then—supportive, angry, provocative in various ways—which I’ll work through and quote as circumstances allow. But for real-time reasons, I want to quote one of them today. It’s from Justin Kaplan, a current graduate student at Harvard, who is originally from southern Virginia and went to college at the University of Virginia. (He points out that he is one of a set of triplets, which has affected his parents’ ability to support his higher-education costs.)

Kaplan, whose name I am using with his permission, writes about a vote for graduate-school unionization at Harvard that is winding up today. As he points out, his experience should obviously not be taken as representative of elite universities in general, or Harvard in particular, or even his own graduate department. But accumulations of individual  experience have their weight, and this is his account:

Regarding your piece on “The Future of Elite Schools in the Trump Era,” I would love to share my thoughts and experiences of the “Present” at an elite school: namely, Harvard.

I will preface my comments with a disclaimer: I do not claim to speak for all students at Harvard, nor all students at the School of Public Health, where I currently pursue a master’s degree. I am just relaying the observations I have been banking since my acceptance and subsequent arrival here… It would be fallacious to generalize widely from my experience.

That being said, my best friend at Harvard is my therapist. Or maybe my psychiatrist, whom I see monthly at student health, and who recently comforted me with an age-old adage: “it’s better to be from Harvard than at Harvard.”

They were surprised I had not heard that saying before. Apparently, I’m not alone in my disdain for the realities of student life in the Ivy League.

I could fill a book with the conversations I’ve had with my mental healthcare providers. A chapter on the social isolation I’ve felt here; on what I should do with my life; on the merits and drawbacks of exclusively affinity group events at an already departmentalized school; on the unhealthy stress of crippling student loans, and my brewing envy (and resentment) of those without them.

* * *

I applied to Harvard seeking academic opportunity, personal validation, and of course, a prestigious pedigree. I was nearing completion of a two-year research fellowship, and, having been painfully pre-med in college, I was finally ready to admit that medicine was not for me (I don’t like hospitals).

I still craved a mission-driven career, and decided the passion for public health I had cultivated as an undergrad warranted further exploration. After informational interviews with numerous public health professionals, who told me the field was dominated by alumni of the highest ranked schools, I made the choice to only apply to top programs for my master’s—a degree required for consideration in most public health doctoral programs.

I was obviously thrilled when I received my acceptance to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Before I was accepted here, I knew I was smart, capable, worthwhile, what have you. But now, I thought, I had irrefutable proof.

While I knew the price-tag for my 1.5 year degree was over $75,000 in tuition alone, I cast that egregious number aside—surely, I would get financial aid from the world’s most endowed University. And besides, according to my family, my friends, and my coworkers, a Harvard degree is an investment, a fast track to a successful future. How could I say no?

When my financial aid “award” arrived, I was met with a heap of federal unsubsidized loans, a smidge of work study, and no grants or scholarships. The total award did not cover my full tuition, let alone living expenses in Boston, one of the most expensive cities in the country.

Naturally, I was disheartened. My grades and test scores were pretty far above reported student averages, and my paltry pay as a research fellow had given me hope for financial pity. I had filled out my FAFSA as an independent (my parents are not funding this), and my expected contribution estimate was $0. But after contacting the Office of Financial Aid, thinking there was a mistake, they confirmed the reality I had previously disavowed: to Harvard, I am dispensable.

* * *

One year after accepting my offer of admission, I question my decision to come here almost every day. On one hand, it was a poor life choice to choose an expensive school for its name, especially for a non-terminal degree. On the other hand, would you even be reading this if I didn’t go to Harvard?

The School knows the Harvard brand is powerful enough to attract the best and brightest. But at times, it feels like I paid full price for a knock-off Rolex. For instance, we recently received news that our School of Public Health email addresses will expire 230 days after graduation, unlike in previous years, when students got to keep their accounts for life. After an uproar from the graduating class, the school extended the expiration date of these networking necessities to—wait for it—a whole year after graduation.

Other students here have expressed similar dismay towards Harvard’s nickel-and-diming. A recent post on our student Facebook group deriding “spurious charges imposed on students” and other “greedy policies,” such as commencement gown rental fees, received considerable attention. I have shared a snippet of the post below:

“These charges may be trivial to some or most, but to me, these charges reflect an inconvenient truth: arguably the most eminent university of the world treats its mission as a mere business. A fact that will not be lost on me and my colleagues when we are requested to make alumni donations.

I could not agree more. In 2015, our school was renamed to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health after a $350 million gift from The Morningside Foundation, the largest gift in Harvard’s history at the time. When I am told repeatedly by the Office of Financial Aid that “funds are extremely limited,” I find myself wondering: Where did this gift end up?

I understand that Harvard cannot bankroll every student’s education. But at the same time, financial wellbeing affords mental wellbeing, and graduate school is stressful enough without a bulging backpack of accruing bills.

* * *

On a related note, there has been an enormous grassroots push for unionization on campus, led by doctoral and master’s students across all 11 Harvard Schools.  The fate of this proposed Harvard Graduate Students Union will be put to vote later this week (I plan to vote #UnionYes).

It is obvious from the barrage of emails we receive from the Office of The Provost where the school stands on the issue. Just today I received an email from the Director of Labor and Employee Relations ominously titled “Out of Pocket.” The email body discussed the cost of union dues (and nothing else), reminding students that “60% of the dues and fees collected will go directly to the international UAW union—not to local Harvard students.” Well, if Harvard supported us local Harvard students, maybe we wouldn’t be pursuing unionization in the first place.

The larger context here is, of course, how the elite universities that play such an important part in American scientific, cultural, economic, international (etc) strength adapt to the tensions and possibilities of this age. Thanks to Justin Kaplan, and more to come.