Affording a Harvard Graduation

Commencement costs strain low-income students’ budgets.

Lenica Morales-Valenzuela ’15 celebrates graduation with her family.

Graduation is a rite of passage when families are united, tears are shed, and memories are shared. But for some students, it is also a time when belts are tightened.

“I can go to this event that costs $40, or I can eat for the day,” Lenica Morales-Valenzuela ’15 remembers thinking; she missed the majority of the Senior Week events because she chose to work Dorm Crew to support herself during Commencement week, when dining halls are closed.

Graduation at Harvard is an expensive affair: families need to be flown in and accommodated, closed dining halls necessitate eating out in the often expensive Harvard Square, a cap and gown need to be rented. Morales-Valenzuela estimates that the minimum amount that needs to be spent during the two weeks leading up to graduation is $2,000. That includes flights for family members ($1,000), and their accommodation ($600) and food ($400) for four to five days.

The cost climbs far higher if students choose to buy class souvenirs, class photographs, or attend Senior Week events. Every step leading to the cherished moment of receiving one’s diploma seems to require payment. (And after the College confers that diploma, framing it can cost anywhere between $160 and $278.)

Ana Barros ’16 says her sister was not able to frame her diploma when she graduated from the College two years ago, due to the hefty cost. “She told me it was one last reminder that she didn’t belong here,” recalls Barros, who serves as president of the First Generation Students Union, an organization that seeks to give voice and resources to students who are the first in their families to attend college.

For Barros, many “extra little things” designed to foster a sense of community among the graduating class instead make some seniors feel excluded, especially first-generation students. The senior ring—just one of a range of souvenirs commemorating this once-in-a-lifetime moment—exemplifies the hard choices that can face students and families. Morales-Valenzuela’s parents saved up for months to help her purchase a senior ring, which costs a minimum of $360—their budget for two or three weeks’ worth of food. Even though she thought it was overly expensive for a symbolic object, her parents insisted. “It was everything they ever wanted. It was their American dream,” she said.

Purchasing memorabilia like the ring is not obligatory, but many students feel social pressure to obtain them. Senior rings are aggressively marketed by Harvard Student Agencies to each class, beginning in junior year, with flyers distributed to dorm rooms and even sent to students’ homes for their parents to see. Some students see wearing the ring as a way to advertise their Harvard degree.

There are also essentially obligatory costs that are not covered by any kind of publicized financial aid program. Renting a cap and gown costs $40, enough to create a strain on the tight budgets of low-income students. Sietse Goffard ’15, first marshal of his class, considers it “worrisome that not even a simple note or message was conveyed about some sort of financial assistance for that.”

To Harvard’s credit, the Griffin Financial Aid Office does offer some special assistance around graduation time for seniors who are on substantial financial aid. For example, the Student Events Fund makes all Senior Week events free to eligible students. The office also helps low-income seniors and their family members who attend Commencement with the cost of travel, accommodation, and food.

But students say these resources are administered in an opaque fashion, and in some cases are not publicized at all. For example, the financial assistance that enabled Morales-Valenzuela’s family to attend her graduation (after she sent in a proposed budget and documentation) is not listed on any University website. “No one reaches out to you about it,” she reports. “I heard about it through word of mouth.”

The assistance is not publicized, director of financial aid Sally Donahue explains, because it is not an official part of the financial-aid program, and is offered “on appeal.” “It’s not an entitlement,” she says. “It falls more into the category of students with expenses they are unable to handle that are related to their being here, and we always encourage students to be in touch with us if they have those kinds of concerns.”

Sietse Goffard, who served as vice president of the Undergraduate Council, says he was told by the financial-aid office that the limited publicity for certain resources is caused by a fear that too many students would request them. For some students, though, being left in the dark signals a lack of commitment from the University. The dearth of official communication leaves the impression, at least, that the College is not “ready” to help when it comes to what many students feel is the most important moment in their Harvard career.

Morales-Valenzuela wishes that a guide to navigating Commencement week on a budget existed, offering estimated costs at restaurants and hotels in Harvard Square, for example. It would make graduation a lot less hectic and stressful for low-income seniors, she says.

Barros thinks that Harvard has made great strides in recent years in recruiting a student body that represents diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, but has not done enough to make sure that every student has complete access to the full undergraduate experience. Perhaps the rapid change in the composition of its student body has outpaced the College’s ability to keep up. Barros points out that other peer institutions have initiated programs that help low-income and first-generation students with the cost of graduation. Columbia recently made it possible to cover the cost of cap and gown through financial aid.

Harvard, she says, should do more to help low-income students not just get in, but also fit in. “I’m acknowledging that Harvard is doing things, but is it doing enough? Are we living up to the mission of socioeconomic diversity?” she asks. “It’s not just about access—it’s also about making sure that everybody feels like part of the community.”

To learn more about efforts to assist first-generation students at Harvard, see “First-Generation Challenges” from this magazine’s archives.

Read more articles by: Zara Zhang

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