Surviving the pandemic was stressful for Harvard Law School student Stacey Menjivar and her family. Her parents took a huge financial hit when everything shut down last year.
Both of her parents lost their jobs in March of 2020. Her father worked in construction and her mom works in a school cafeteria.
"My mother has begun working again, but she still is being paid the wage that people are paid when you don't have a high school diploma," she said.
Menjivar thought that, this summer, she'd finally be able to help her parents financially after all the sacrifices they made to get her to law school. She took a summer clerkship, a lucrative job for law students that can pay upwards of $30,000 per season.
But then she remembered that Harvard would be first in line for much of that salary, thanks to the rules of her need-based financial aid package.
"None of this has been easy," said Menjivar. "And to now tell me that when my parents need the most help, I can't help them because you need my money and you need this income?"
This policy is known as a "summer contribution," and it’s not a new thing. It's common practice among several U.S. law schools that offer need-based financial aid. Under the policy, when you accumulate more wealth through your highly paid summer job, you’re able to contribute more to your education. The policies vary, but at Harvard Law School, summer contributions usually require students to contribute about 90% of their summer salary after taxes and an $8,200 living allowance is subtracted.
While Menjivar said she understands the reasoning, it still feels harsh during the pandemic, especially for low income and first generation students.
"It's insensitive and it is inequitable," added Menjivar.
Officials with Harvard Law School said they couldn’t comment specifically on Menjivar’s case. But in an email said they're giving renewed attention to how they support low income and first generation students. They also said a new grant program is aimed at helping students with the highest financial needs after the pandemic.
None of this has been easy. And to now tell me that when my parents need the most help, I can't help them because you need my money and you need this income?Stacy Menjivar
Experts familiar with the legal education industry say summer contributions have been a pain point for a while. But schools are starting to respond.
"We have seen law schools, particularly over the last year, making sure that they are trying to do whatever they can to accommodate," said LeAndra Ross, a regional director with AccessLex, a nonprofit aimed at making legal education more accessible.
If students don’t have friends or family members who have experience with law school or financial aid in general, they’re likely not going to know that their financial aid package isn't set in stone, Ross said. They can ask for an adjustment or an appeal when their financial situation changes.
"They don’t know what they don’t know," she said. "All they know is that you’re taking this money that I’m earning and using it to calculate my next year’s financial aid and there’s nothing I can do about it. Because you’ve detailed it out on the website and that signals to me that it is what it is."
Harvard Law School is one of only two institutions to exclusively offer need-based financial aid packages. According to Ross, most law schools offer a significant amount of merit-based aid, which looks at other factors like test scores and grades and doesn't require a summer contribution. While there are humanistic reasons for offering merit-based financial aid, its purpose has a lot more to do with recruiting the most competitive students.
"I think there's no secret that of course law schools are going to want to recruit and get the best of the best," she said.
Menjivar said she did ask for an adjustment that would allow her to send some money home to her parents but was denied. So she took to twitter to vent her frustrations. And her story appeared to strike a nerve. Thousands of people weighed in, with a variety of viewpoints.
Leaders with the nonprofit AccesLex add that while this debate isn’t new, the pandemic has brought it into a very sharp focus.
"We've been living through a deeply challenging and painful time," said Derek Brainard, the national director of financial education at AccessLex. "And deeply challenging and painful times tend to highlight systems and processes that just need some attention. And at the end of the day I think that that’s exactly what’s happening here."
This segment aired on July 12, 2021.