The Cost of Having Fun at Harvard? $200, College Administrators Say

By Madeleine A. Hung and Azusa M. Lippit, Crimson Staff Writers
By Hailey E. Krasnikov

Every summer, Harvard College students are asked to pay the $200 Student Activities Fee, a little-noticed optional charge that funds undergraduate social programming.

The Student Activities Fee brought R&B singer-songwriter Tinashe to perform at Yardfest on Sunday, funded iconic Housing Day t-shirts, and booked glamorous venues for House and club formals.

While undergraduates can opt out of paying the Student Activities Fee, several College administrators emphasized its importance when discussing efforts to enhance student social life. And when the Dean of Students Office cut funding for Harvard College’s House Committees last year, a letter announcing the change pointed to a decrease in students who pay the fee.

Yardfest, the College’s annual spring concert, is organized by the Harvard College Events Board — one of four recipients of the SAF fund.

The SAF also funds House Committees, which plan events for each of the 12 upperclassmen Houses, the Harvard Undergraduate Association, which distributes funds to the College’s independent student organizations, and the Student Advisory Committee to the Harvard Foundation, which awards grants to cultural student groups.

But many undergraduates said they don’t realize they pay the fee or know what the funding is used for, even as students have become increasingly critical of social life at the College.

“I was unaware of the fee until this interview,” said Jesse L. Troyer ’25.

Opting Out

While many students don’t know about the SAF, a growing number are aware of the fee and choosing to not pay it.

The number of students who opted out of the fee sharply increased during the Covid-19 pandemic era after the University sent students home from campus in 2020.

Students can waive the fee by writing their reason for opting out in a letter, either mailed or delivered in person, to the student accounts office by the beginning of each school year.

Ting Ting Yan ’26 — who waives the fee — said she learned about opting out from other students in the First-Year Retreat and Experience pre-orientation program, which is geared toward first-generation and low-income students.

The College’s financial aid does not cover the SAF, according to College spokesperson Jonathan Palumbo — leading some students to opt out of the fee.

Dean of Students Thomas Dunne said in a February interview that the ability to opt out of the fee is “rare” compared to other schools. He added that the financial aid office, though a potential option to cover the fee, is a logistically difficult alternative.

“Working through the logistics of financial aid policies, there are certain complexities to that and we’ve been raising those issues,” Dunne said.

Dunne added that the students opting out of the fee are not disproportionately on financial aid.

Dean of Students Thomas Dunne pictured in a March interview. Dunne said having the Student Activities Fee covered by financial aid would be logistically difficult.
Dean of Students Thomas Dunne pictured in a March interview. Dunne said having the Student Activities Fee covered by financial aid would be logistically difficult. By Addison Y. Liu

Other students, however, said they pay the fee because they didn’t know they could opt out of it.

Kejsi Demaj ’25 said she “wasn’t even aware” she paid the fee and she wished she had received more information about submitting the letter to opt-out.

“I can’t see myself taking the time out of my day to write a letter, sending it out,” she said. “It’s like going to the gym — you have to walk into the gym to cancel it as opposed to doing it over the phone.”

Several students said they did not understand why events like Yardfest had to be funded by the SAF fund.

Somto M. Unini ’25-26 — who pays the fee — said she wishes the fee “wasn’t a thing in the first place.”

“What are you doing with my tuition money?” she asked. “We already live with rats. “We can’t even have an activity. And if we didn’t have this fee, then you guys just wouldn’t give us anything at all? You wouldn't put on any events?”

“It should not be dependent upon students for the student experience,” Unini added. “Tuition should be all-inclusive.”

Because the fee comes entirely from students, it is able to support student organizations while maintaining their financial independence from the University, Associate Dean for Student Engagement Jason R. Meier said in a February interview.

‘So Much Frustration’

Due to opt-outs, the total amount in the SAF fund for this academic year decreased by $70,000 for fiscal year 2024. College administrators said the decrease has a direct impact on their ability to organize social events for undergraduates.

“A lot of students don’t realize, by opting out, they’re exacerbating this larger problem that we already have,” Meier said.

One potential way to decrease opt-outs is for groups to explicitly advertise their events as SAF-funded, according to Meier.

“When students understand just the depth of what this fee could do, I think it does create an impetus,” Meier said.

Some students said that while they initially did not know they were paying the SAF, they would gladly opt-in to enhance the College’s social scene.

Once Troyer learned what the SAF is used for, he said he would happily pay the $200 annual fee.

“I will be continuing to opt in for the fee for the remainder of my Harvard undergraduate career,” Troyer added. “I think the student activities are really important, and I think the fee has a pretty direct use in bringing cool artists to Yardfest, for example, through the College Events Board.”

The Dean of Students Office is located in University Hall. DSO admiinstrators told The Crimson that SAF revenues plummeted following the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Dean of Students Office is located in University Hall. DSO admiinstrators told The Crimson that SAF revenues plummeted following the Covid-19 pandemic. By Aiyana G. White

Meier said each of the four groups that rely on the SAF received a “flat cut” from their budget due to the $70,000 loss from student opt-outs.

“It really didn’t feel right to hamper one at the expense of others when we could all bear the burden equally,” Meier said. “It certainly isn’t easy and doesn’t feel great.”

As it does not directly fund independent student groups, CEB is eligible to receive non-SAF funding from Harvard. Meier said he has sought to secure “permanent funding” for CEB from the College’s Student Engagement Office.

“That has not panned out so far, but we’re hopeful to look into that in the future,” Meier said.

In addition to opt-outs, inflation in recent years has affected the purchasing power of the SAF fund.

“There’s so much frustration,” Meier said. “Everything is so much more expensive today than it was last year, which is way more expensive than it was two years ago, which is way more expensive than it was pre-Covid.”

Still, students often complain that Yardfest headliners are not as high-profile as those at other schools, such as Metro Boomin’s and Daya’s upcoming performances at the University of Pennsylvania.

“We’re never going to get the headliners that you all want for Crimson Jam and Yardfest,” Meier said in February. “Everyone was like, ‘Oh, get Ice Spice’ last year. Ice Spice was going for a cool half a million dollars last year, without an album yet.”

The Road to Yardfest

The Dean of Students Office and CEB’s Arts and Entertainment committee begin planning Yardfest in October, six months before the spring semester concert is held.

“There’s a couple things we have to figure out,” Meier said. “Who is going to be on tour, who is willing to do a college date — because there are not many performers willing to do college dates — and then, who is in our price range.”

The DSO and CEB also examine the performers’ “technical writers” — or explanations of requirements like stage dimensions, audio equipment, and dressing room provisions — to ensure that they can meet the acts’ needs, according to Meier.

After the DSO compiles a list of potential headliners with “a lot of recommendations” from CEB, they immediately begin reaching out to performers.

“We have to have that nimbleness to move quickly because sometimes we will hear from management of a performer and we will have a matter of hours to confirm or deny an offer,” Meier said.

The DSO and CEB encounter additional hurdles when booking performers for Yardfest because of Harvard’s proximity to Boston, Meier said. Once an artist has booked a show in Boston, they often have a period of “blackout dates” during which they will not perform another nearby show.

Despite the arduous process of acquiring a headliner, students often criticize the choice.

“It creates this really tough place where financially we’re challenged, from a logistics perspective we’re challenged,” Meier said. “I don’t think the average student understands that.”

Tinashe performs at Yardfest, the College's annual spring concert. Planning for Yardfest begins in October, six months before the event is held.
Tinashe performs at Yardfest, the College's annual spring concert. Planning for Yardfest begins in October, six months before the event is held. By Daniel Morales Rosales

In particular, Meier pushed back against student criticism of CEB’s work.

“They work so hard. They’re up against so much,” he added. “The scrutiny that they get on social media, on Sidechat — the hate that they’ve gotten in the coverage of The Crimson — is really disappointing and it makes it harder for us to recruit student leaders who want to do this.”

This year, CEB’s monthslong search for a Yardfest headliner culminated in Tinashe.

CEB Arts and Entertainment committee member DayOnna Carson ’24 wrote in a statement that she was drawn to Tinashe because of her performance skills and philanthropy.

“I love how innovative, talented, and versatile Tinashe is as an artist and dancer,” Carson wrote. “She takes her craft very seriously, making a point to give back and raise awareness of social causes that she’s passionate about.”

In response to criticism of Yardfest headliners, CEB’s Arts and Entertainment committee wrote in a statement that they would encourage students to get involved in the selection process.

“We respect that people have different tastes in music and artists,” they wrote. “We are happy to share what goes into our process, and we welcome individuals who are interested in joining CEB and planning future events.”

But some undergraduates also said they would be more willing to pay the Student Activities Fee — or support the College Events Board in less traditional ways — if it meant booking their favorite artists to perform on campus.

“If we got Fred again.. for Yardfest, I would sell my kidney,” Ilyas Mardin ’24 said. “To get a banging artist — organs, limbs, whatever it takes.”

—Staff writer Madeleine A. Hung can be reached at

—Staff writer Azusa M. Lippit can be reached at Follow her on X @azusalippit or on Threads @azusalippit.

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