On Wednesday, Harvard released a statement on its decision not to accept funds from the CARES Act’s Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund. Prior to the decision, the university received public pressure after reports revealed it was slated to receive almost $9 million. President Trump even said that the university should be required to give the money back. I have seen a number of my classmates who are angry or frustrated that this decision was borne of public pressure. I fully disagree: Harvard doesn’t need the money.
It is true that Harvard would have used this money to financially support students. As a first-generation, low-income student myself and as someone who receives full financial aid, I probably would have received a portion of those funds. However, Harvard students are already incredibly privileged compared to our peers at schools with much smaller endowments. When we were forced to leave campus, many FGLI students received money from the university for flights and for shipping our belongings home, and many alumni stepped up to provide support in the form of housing, food, and cash donations. But the biggest help was the roughly $4,000 in refunds that we received for room and board. Being on full financial aid, I did not expect to receive this money, but the university was generous enough to give it to me. All students, regardless of their level of financial aid, received it.
Meanwhile, many of my friends at state schools have not been given refunds or help with travel or shipping costs, and their schools’ alumni networks are not as wealthy as Harvard’s. This is true for college students across the country who have paid thousands for their college experience, only to be denied refunds. Instead, colleges are offering reduced prices for summer and fall classes, and students are filing lawsuits. These discounts do not help the students who are struggling to live at home, or are even without homes. These are the low-income students who need the most help during this crisis.
This does not ignore the current need in our own community: some Harvard students are homeless, have run out of money due to family needs, and are generally struggling. But for every homeless Harvard student, there are also alumni and families in the community who are willing to open their doors to house these students over the summer if Harvard refuses to. In contrast, there are students at other schools going through the same thing who do not have similar options.
The money from the CARES Act should go to institutions who are struggling, not Ivy League schools run by the establishment. Harvard has done the right thing by giving back the funds. On top of that, the university’s public statement says, “Harvard remains fully committed to providing the financial support that it has promised to its students.” Whether this means they will give students more money or only stick with their generous financial aid package is still unknown; either way, Harvard students will continue to have access to more resources than most students around the country.
Additionally, this should be a wake up call for a lot of students. Our university has a $40 billion endowment. I understand Harvard’s complex financial system and how many of the funds are restricted. But the fact is, if Harvard wants money, Harvard is going to get money. This university has more political capital than any other institution of higher education, and if it wanted to ask donors to change restrictions on how their money is used during a crisis, it could.
Harvard can also dip into its endowment more generally. The university lost $11 billion in the 2008 financial crisis, which brought the endowment down to $26 billion. Twelve years of recovery later, and now the university boasts a $40 billion endowment. Harvard will always recover from dipping into its endowment, and even if they do not, that is still literally billions of dollars.
I will continue to emphasize billions because I don’t think people understand how ridiculous that number is. How a single entity is even allowed to accumulate that much wealth is beyond me. That endowment could end homelessness in the US twice. The excuse that Harvard cannot dip into the endowment, even in this time of crisis, is ridiculous. According to university reporting, Harvard had a $298 million surplus this past year, and the same report cites a $196-million surplus from the prior year. This surplus money should be used to help Harvard’s most vulnerable members of its community.
The bottom line is, as FGLI students, we need to wake up to the wealth that surrounds us and the relative privilege we hold in comparison to our FGLI peers at other institutions. Harvard should not take a cent from the government when that money can be reallocated to support public institutions. I hope that Harvard’s peer universities will follow suit.
Image Credit: Flickr / Ted Eytan