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“Who cares about all these student government elections?”
This apathetic sentiment has seemingly become commonplace in recent years. It makes sense: The Harvard Undergraduate Association is a student government so chaotic it found itself the center of student criticism only a week into this academic year.
There’s just one problem with the otherwise blissful ignorance of pretending the HUA doesn’t exist: club funding.
I’m not here to talk about clubs’ contentious food budgets or private events. It’s hard to see these disputes as anything but a sideshow when the clubs themselves are not accessible to low-income students. As a part of Harvard’s frustratingly small low-income student body, my tuition and room and board are completely covered by need-based financial aid. But I still found that I needed to work a part-time job on the side.
The truth is, no matter what low-income students do, a full ride will never be quite enough to meet all of our needs; even if I manage to make it to the dining hall on time for every meal, never get injured or sick, avoid traveling anywhere I can’t walk, and cut every last hobby out of my life, I’d still have to pay for textbooks. In fact, the College appears well aware of these expenses: They already estimate an individual student will need $3,500 for “Personal Expenses” on financial aid documents, which they elaborate should be met with the “Student Term-Time Work Expectation.”
So I secured a part-time job in Cambridge before I ever stepped foot on Harvard’s campus. I even took pride in my newfound financial independence. But one recurring question in the neverending cycle of the Harvard intro kept haunting me: “What clubs are you in?”
The answer was simple: “None.” Being a full-time Harvard student and working 15 hours a week just didn’t leave time for anything but a handful of Fuerza Latina events. I was well aware that countless opportunities were passing me by, but I didn’t have a second to spare. I felt like I was hardly making the most of my time at Harvard, like all my classmates seemed to be doing.
So what changed? How am I even writing this op-ed? Well, eventually, I found out that The Crimson has a need-based financial aid program for its low-income writers that pays them for their work, essentially serving as a job replacement.
But The Crimson is financially independent from the College. As it stands, the College’s funding is wholly inadequate for most student groups to compensate club members for their work. The Crimson pays individual low-income members up to $1,500 per semester, while the average student group received a total of $650 from the University annually as of 2018 — a figure that would have grown to just over $1,730 today, assuming club funding increased proportionally to the student activities fee.
In other words, even assuming students were no less willing to pay the increased student activities fee, it would take almost the entire budget of the average student organization to pay a single member for a semester’s work, making such a proposal a non-starter under the current club funding structure — and leaving low-income students on the outside, looking in.
Unsurprisingly, this has helped foster a campus culture defined by inequity: While low-income students often find themselves stuck working low-wage jobs to meet their needs, wealthy students gain professional experience and connections in student organizations from the Institute of Politics to Harvard Undergraduate Consulting on Business and the Environment.
Worse yet, this seems to create a cycle of exclusion. When low-income students are left on the outside looking in, student organizations are less likely to cater to the needs of the low-income members they do have.
So, how do we fix it? On one hand, Harvard could offer further direct financial support to low-income students, providing them the same degree of autonomy wealthy students already have. But this seems highly unlikely, especially given the College’s expectation that “personal expenses” be met through term-time work.
On the other hand, the College’s leadership could move to overhaul the club funding structure, ensuring that clubs — particularly those with pre-professional implications — offer pay to highly involved members. This approach is likely more palatable for an administration that seems unwilling to award financial assistance for all but the most basic living expenses.
While it’s understandably easy to lose sight of the importance of club funding when it so often is devoted to nothing but merchandise, an El Jefe’s or Kung Fu Tea budget, and an occasional off-campus event, the HUA’s club funding responsibility is crucial for the accessibility of student organizations to low-income students. It can be entertaining to laugh as we watch the frenzy that ensues when we trust a group of unqualified wannabe politicians to manage hundreds of thousands of dollars, but we cannot lose sight of the serious work they are neglecting. When the stakes are as high as they are, we can’t afford to ignore the fact that an organization whose only meaningful responsibility is club funding devoted 19 percent of their $550,000 budget to expenses other than student organizations this year.
Frighteningly, our student government’s lack of credibility may actively discourage students from paying the optional student activities fee. And can we really expect the College to offer the HUA truly adequate funding beyond the student activities fee when students themselves do not trust the student government with their money?
As much as I hate to say it, the HUA’s work matters. But let me be clear. When I vote in an HUA election, I’m not voting because I buy into our broken system. I’m voting because I care about the work that broken system is supposed to do.
If the HUA cares about its only job, then it’s time to prove it by making a meaningful push for financial aid within student organizations. Club funding affects real people. When we pretend it doesn’t, we wind up with the completely inadequate and exclusive system we see today: Clubs for the rich, and jobs for everyone else.
Joseph W. Hernandez ’25, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Government concentrator in Adams House.
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