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Harvard’s Leave of Absence Policies, Explained

Students who take a leave of absence will not be able to take part in extracurriculars and may face hurdles in returning from leave.
Students who take a leave of absence will not be able to take part in extracurriculars and may face hurdles in returning from leave. By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By Juliet E. Isselbacher and Amanda Y. Su, Crimson Staff Writers

Harvard students who decide to take a leave of absence this fall will make a series of tradeoffs — sacrificing their eligibility to participate in extracurriculars, school-sponsored jobs, and campus research to buy back in-person time with friends on campus.

After Harvard announced that it would only bring freshmen and select upperclassmen back to campus and conduct its courses entirely online in the fall, many undergraduates expressed interest in taking a leave of absence. According to a survey by the Harvard Open Data Project, a student faculty collaboration, 15 percent of students are “extremely unlikely” to enroll this coming semester.

The College said it would not alter the handbook in any way to dissuade students from taking a leave. Still, the unusual circumstances presented by the coronavirus pandemic prompted many undergraduates to review the College’s existing leave rules for the first time.

Unenrolled students are barred from participating in campus activities and using most Harvard resources.

The College’s policies will have implications on the contingent of students who had hoped to take a leave while staying virtually connected with on-campus clubs, publications, and service groups.

The handbook states that the Administrative Board must “specifically” approve exceptions to the extracurricular rule in advance, though the College administration has not communicated with undergraduates as a whole about how to initiate the approval process should they choose to take a leave.

Harvard spokesperson Rachael Dane added that the College’s policy also forbids students from holding school sponsored jobs.

“The College will continue to maintain its standard leave policy which does not allow students to participate in extra-curricular or any Harvard sponsored employment,” she wrote.

Additionally unenrolled students may not make use of libraries or any other campus facilities, according to the handbook.

However, students who choose to take a leave do maintain access to some resources, such as consulting their resident dean and applying for Harvard funding, like summer grants, with the approval of the Administrative Board.

In rare cases, leave policy could also impact students’ financial aid eligibility.

Though the College has stated that taking time off does not affect aid, undergraduates who decide to leave in the middle of the term use up one of their eight semesters of aid eligibility.

When they return to campus, they must petition the Financial Aid Committee for an additional semester of aid.

During a College webinar on leaves of absence early July, Charlene Kim, who works in the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid, assured students that the committee approves most petitions.

“I know petitioning sounds scary, but it’s not,” she said. “Generally if it was not a voluntary thing — you weren't leaving in the middle of the semester to go and do a start up with your friend in the Bay Area — these are approved because leaves that happen in the middle of a term are usually because there’s a family emergency or there might have been a mental health issue that was causing some academic performance issues.”

Returning from leave might present additional hurdles.

Students in good standing may ordinarily return for any term from their leave of absence by notifying their resident dean twelve weeks in advance of that term. However, Harvard ordinarily prohibits freshmen taking a leave of absence at any point during their first term from registering before the fall term of the next academic year.

Students who opt to take time off may also be required to consult with Harvard University Health Services — and cede their treatment records — if the College learns of “serious concerns” about their health or well-being and deems it necessary to assess their “stability and readiness to return.”

During the leaves of absence webinar, many student attendees repeatedly asked administrators whether they would receive housing at the end of their leave if a large number of undergraduates chose to return together en masse.

Associate Dean of Students Lauren Brandt told students that Harvard could not guarantee students taking a leave campus dorms upon their return.

“It is always possible that we will have more students seeking to live on campus. And depending on the existing public health guidance, we may not have as much capacity as we normally do,” Brandt said during the webinar.” I do want to caution that if we do have housing, it may not be in the same shape and format to which you are used to.”

“I know a lot of students who are thinking about or considering leaves of absence are worried about what this means for housing in the future,” Brandt said. “And the best advice that I can give you at this point is that we are aware of this as a question.”

—Staff writer Juliet E. Isselbacher can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @julietissel.

—Staff writer Amanda Y. Su can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @amandaysu.

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