Harvard recently announced that it would not support a Freshman Enrichment pre-orientation program geared towards low-income students. Our writers weigh in on what Harvard can do to better support its most vulnerable students, offering suggestions for future proposals.   Image Source: Wikimedia/Bostonian13


Campus | April 11, 2017 at 10:00 am

Drawing the Line: Defining Low-Income


While it is a generally good idea to provide low-income students with a pre-orientation program that acclimatizes them to the elitist institution that is Harvard, there are basic questions about the program that haven’t yet received sufficient consideration: who exactly is this program for and what do we mean by “low-income?”

The program could decide to determine whether an individual is low-income according to the federal poverty level. In 2016, the poverty threshold for a family of four with two children was $24,339, and the low-income threshold for the same family was $36,900. However, even students from families that don’t fall into these exact definitions may feel unfamiliar at a school with a median family income three times that of the national average. As such, using federal guidelines to determine the target audience of a possible orientation program for low-income students seems somewhat limiting.

To address this concern, Harvard could instead decide who is a low-income student by the level of financial aid that a student receives. However, this would also raise the issue of a cut-off point. If the program was meant for students on full-financial aid – i.e., students from families with yearly incomes less than $65,000 – then would a student from a family making $70,000 a year be excluded from the program, even though their experiences may be quite similar to that of a student from a family making $65,000 yearly? There wouldn’t seem to be a readily available bright-line for determining who this program would be intended for.

Since it would be difficult to arrive at an agreeable definition of low-income, it is possible that program organizers could allow students of any socioeconomic background participate in the program. This, however, might make it more difficult to build a sense of cohesion and community among the program’s participants. If program coordinators accepted students from families with a broader range of incomes, they would have to create a program that addresses the needs of students from very different class backgrounds. A student from a family of five that makes $30,000 annually may face very different issues when entering college than an only child whose parents make $65,000 annually.

Admittedly, even limiting the program to students from a narrow range of financial backgrounds would still bring in a diversity of life experiences. This diversity may even be helpful, as students would be able to reflect on the ways factors besides socioeconomic status impact life experiences. However, too much class diversity might make it more difficult to unite students based on a similar socioeconomic background. It also would make it difficult for program coordinators to identify precisely what programming would best acclimatize students to Harvard if the students have vastly different backgrounds and needs.

The questions and issues raised here aren’t meant to argue against the establishment of a pre-orientation program for low-income students. Rather, they are meant to urge those crafting ideas for such a program to carefully consider who it is that they are trying to serve, because that will inevitably shape the goals of the program and how it is executed. It is impossible to build a program that effectively serves low-income students if we don’t know what we mean by low-income.

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