Monday, April 07, 2008

An open letter from a disillusioned Harvard KSG acceptee

I was just cc'ed on a letter to President Faust from someone who has a big problem with Harvard's graduate student financial aid policies (my own commentary follows the excerpts):
A few weeks ago, I received the wonderful news that I have been accepted to study at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government (KSG), but my initial euphoria was soon stamped out as a second KSG email arrived announcing that I would only be offered loans as financial "aid." KSG suggests that I take out more than $130,000 in loans to pay for my two-year Master's program. $130,000? I want to attend KSG to get the best possible preparation to enter the public sector. How am I supposed to work in the public sector strapped with $130,000+ of education debt? Being accepted to KSG has turned out to be a pyrrhic achievement indeed. So, I write this letter to bring attention to my dilemma in the hopes that future KSG acceptees do not have to face the choices currently before me.

At first, I thought KSG must have made a mistake in calculating my aid, considering my limited financial resources (I have spent the last two years as a volunteer in a developing country) and considering Harvard's much publicized push to increase financial aid, even to upper-middle-class undergrads. But no - KSG considers my financial need "met," by offering loans only. The KSG Financial Aid website says, "Financial assistance is a partnership." I have kept my end of the bargain - I live frugally, I do not have much consumer debt, and I applied (in vain) to a number of external funding sources. I do not feel like much of a partner in this relationship, however, as KSG is not offering me a single penny of assistance.
The author then discusses the contradictory messages sent by the KSG administration, which on the one hand stresses public service, while at the same time forcing students to take on hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of debt (if interest is included) to attend Harvard. He or she concludes with this:
I therefore implore you, KSG, and Harvard University to increase financial aid to KSG students - through fundraising, through a capital campaign, through bake-sales, or however - so that future students are indeed able to enter public and non-profit service after their education at KSG instead of having to sell themselves as private sector consultants in order to be able to pay back their loans. Otherwise, KSG is guilty of making this country and this world worse, by pushing those who are most able and motivated to serve in the public and non-profit sectors into the private sector. Crass financial calculations are not sufficient justifications for this.
The author brings up a lot of valid points. It is unrealistic to expect students interested in entering the public sector to take on such huge amounts of debt. Moreover, if Harvard can do so much for College undergraduates in terms of tuition wavers and other financial aid, why can't similar benefits be extended to students at Harvard's other schools?


The full text of the letter can be found on the Critical Mass blog, along with some comments.

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