During the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Harvard Kennedy School students advocated for need-based financial aid and more financial support from the administration. Months later, they say the administration’s response remains insufficient.
In May, the Kennedy School Student Government sent a proposal outlining the necessity of need-based grants for full-time degree programs to HKS Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf.
The proposal stated that the school should “incorporate applicants’ financial need assessment at an earlier state” in its admissions process to ensure socioeconomic diversity within the school. It also recommended that the school fund need-based scholarships with class gift funds, factor in need when distributing merit-based scholarships, create a need-specific fundraising system, and form a need-based scholarship program.
Currently, the school awards merit-based fellowships and scholarships after an assessment from the admissions committee, according to the school’s website.
HKS student Diego A. Garcia Blum said many students are facing financial hardships as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, which has devastated the U.S. economy and led to record-breaking unemployment numbers.
“There were a lot of people who felt that the full tuition costs were not justified for the online-only education,” he said. “On top of that, there were people who lost scholarships because of COVID. Literally foundations and organizations that said, ‘we’re giving you this money based on revenue estimates that we have for the rest of the year — which dried off.’”
“The students who had their education planned out based on these scholarships got hit by COVID, but the school didn’t share the burden of that with them at all,” he added. “So we found that the way that the school handled the situations to be inequitable, because those students were not taken into account.”
Kennedy School spokesperson James F. Smith wrote in an email that the school has “expanded” its current financial aid appeals process to “help students meet the additional financial needs prompted by COVID-19.”
“During the Spring 2020 semester, we also instituted an emergency hardship fund, and we expect to be able to offer similar hardship support this fall,” he wrote.
HKS alumni have raised funds to support current students during the pandemic. In a fundraising email to alumni in Washington, D.C., Kennedy School alumni council members wrote, “Please help us ‘pay it forward,’ and send the message that we care about our future alumni and are ready to step up.”
However, current students and alumni still stressed the importance of establishing a need-based financial aid system to allow for more students to attend the school — an issue that students have lobbied for years prior to the pandemic.
The student government’s proposal cited a 2019 survey of roughly 50 applicants of color who declined admissions to HKS. This survey, which HKS students organized, showed that 74 percent of domestic applicants of color who declined their admissions offers did so due to financial burdens.
Sophie P. Dover, a recent graduate of HKS and one of the survey's organizers, said they presented these findings to HKS Senior Associate Dean for Degree Programs and Student Affairs Debbie Isaacson.
“What we said was, even though this was a small group of students, we think you should continue to look into these trends,” she said.
HKS students have long attributed the lack of racial diversity among Kennedy School students to the school’s inadequate financial aid program.
“When we’re talking about how structural racism plays out, a big way it plays out is financially, and there are huge obstacles for students of color to being able to finance their own education, so I think this could be a really meaningful step for the Kennedy School,” Dover said.
Smith wrote that the current financial aid already “factors in an individual’s level of need,” and the school is looking for “ways to expand need-based financial support.”
“While we would love to be able to meet the needs of all of our students, converting to an entirely need-based system would require far greater funding than we now have,” he said.
In their May proposal to administrators, students also requested that Kennedy School administrators “release data on the dimensions of socioeconomic diversity that are currently collected by the Office of Financial Services.”
Charlene A. Wang, the former president of the student government who authored the original proposal, said that reforming financial aid was one of the issues she focused on in her campaign and that students needed data to understand the scope of their financial need.
“We had very popular backing around that, so we felt confident that this is something that a lot of students want to see, because they all can see that there is some kind of injustice happening here when students who are coming from the neediest backgrounds aren’t able to have access to a public policy school — to allow them to change the very circumstances that they have lived,” Wang said.
“We can kind of sense from this that financial aid needs reform,” she added. “But we can never get our hands on data or be able to do a data analysis of how many students from this kind of low income disadvantaged background are at the school.”
HKS student Leah Nakaima said the previous student government had been in talks with alumni about creating a method for them to donate directly to an established need-based aid fund.
Wang, who graduated from HKS last spring, said change at the school is often “driven” by students.
“It just feels like sometimes like this is just not a priority for the administration, unless it’s driven by students and alumni to continue to push them on this,” Wang said. “If you want to push the administration to make change, you kind of have to hold them and lead the way.”
As the Kennedy School elects a new student government, Garcia Blum said he hopes financial aid reform will be a priority for the next set of leaders. Still, he said many student organizations at the school would advocate for reform for its students.
“This is very important for a lot of students like me who worked on it in the last year,” he said. “If the new student body president, or people who get elected, are not championing it, there are other organizations who are willing to champion it.”
—Staff writer Sixiao Yu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org