Image is Everything

Sara Goldrick Rab:

Sunday’s New York Times features a Style section article that quite frankly turned my stomach (at least, I’m pretty sure it was the article and not the 6 month old fetus I’m carrying!). It describes a debate over Harvard’s decision to sign on to a new, expensive preppy clothing line– one that charges more than $150 for a shirt, and up to $500 for a sports coat. A variety of opinions are represented, from that of the director of admissions and financial aid ( a former aid recipient himself) to an undergraduate who said, “I think it’s good that it’s [Harvard’s] doing something to make money.”
These deals apparently generate about $500,000 per year for the university, which (poor baby) saw its endowment decline by 30% last year. And that money goes to financial aid, so we’re not supposed to worry that Harvard’s being greedy.
And that’s the main issue the reporter tackles–whether the decision to say yes to a clothing line that portrays an elite undergraduate student body conflicts with Harvard’s stated goals of expanding diversity. Whether the money raised is enough to cover the additional costs associated with outreach. The “damage” done.
Well, of course it’s not! Image, we all know, is everything– especially when it comes to those families who rely on media for information in the absence of more informed sources. Harvard’s biggest obstacles to bringing in more students from disadvantaged backgrounds are: (1) image; (2) cost of attendance; and (3) admissions requirements. The school is trying to conquer the second one with financial aid, by promising to cover all demonstrated need. That sounds great, but the fact is that the number of admitted students with tremendous financial need isn’t very substantial– if it were, the amount of money required to fulfill that promise would be much more forboding.