Disappointment in Blue, Harvey Darmooth, 1701, crayons
Disappointment in Blue, Harvey Darmooth, 1701, crayons

The Yale administration’s insistence on a student income contribution is reinforcing inequality along race and classlines.”

So proclaims a new campaign launched at Yale, organized by the group Students Unite Now (SUN), aiming to eliminate the student income contribution for undergrads on financial aid.

When I first heard of this movement, I thought their ambition seemed radical and even untenable. Working one’s way through school is part of a familiar vision of the American Dream narrative—albeit one that was easier before the cost of four years’ tuition at private colleges hit the six-figure range. Even institutions with the most generous financial aid packages stipulate a certain sum to be met by students’ earnings from campus and summer jobs. This makes  budgetary and ideological sense—most American schools can’t cover students’ full demonstrated need, and even if they somehow could, students should maybe still be expected to work for a reasonable amount of their funding. Making a few thousand dollars a year out of that enormous six-figure price tag? Surely not too much to ask. So I thought before reviewing the campaign.

Sun argues that Yale need not ask this amount of its students. Furthermore, they argue that the cost of the student income contribution for the Yale community goes beyond any dollar amount. Their website, www.financialaidatyale.org, presents a report on the feasibility and necessity of reform for the students who currently pay the required contribution. The well-designed site also features dozens of personal testimonies from Yale students on financial aid.

The research report and the individual testimonies say that students who must earn between $2850 and $3350 during the school year are at an academic disadvantage to their classmates, since so much of their time is spent working instead of studying. Given that students from low-income backgrounds are more likely to come from disadvantaged educational systems, their adjustment to a rigorous Yale curriculum is particularly challenging even before the commitment of 10-12 hours a week— more time than most students spend in class each week—to a campus job.

“When I applied to Yale, I knew that I would always have to work harder than most Yalies to get the same grade because of my high school’s poor academic background, and I was completely fine with that,” Yale sophomore Jessie Opoku writes. “However, I didn’t expect Yale to add to my burden. I spend so much time working to cover the student contribution that I can’t fully focus on my academics.”

In addition to the academic deficit, Yale’s student income contribution also inhibits campus and community involvement, students say. “Our campus is known for the quality of its publications, its a capella,its theater, its debate,” Yale senior Douglas Plume notes. “These are the most time-consuming things, the most rewarding things, and the most ‘Yale’ things. If you want to immerse yourself in the community and feel like you are 100% a Yale student in every manifestation of the term, student jobs are prohibitive.”

Yale’s official financial aid website, http://finaid.yale.edu/, champions Yale’s exceptional affordability: “More than forty years ago Yale became the first private research university in America to establish need-blind admissions and need-based financial aid for its undergraduates. Since then, making a Yale education affordable for every student admitted has been one of our core principles…Our mission is to help you turn your dream of a Yale education into a reality.”

Students receiving financial aid say that they allowed themselves to believe in such a dream when they accepted Yale’s offer of admission, only to find it denied to them on campus.

“I work eleven hours a week at my job fixing computers just to break even on the student income contribution—and I’m still going into debt to pay for a Yale education that was promised to be affordable, loan-free, and inclusive,” Yale sophomore Olivia Paschal shares.

Questions of inclusivity and homogeneity in the Yale experience have a big part in the campaign against the student income contribution. SUN’s report says, “This requirement creates a two-tiered experience of being a Yale student. One tier consists of students who don’t have to pay the contribution at all…The other tier consists of students who have to compromise their career goals, their pursuit of Yale’s educational opportunities, and the full exploration of their interests in order to come up with the $5,950 per year that Yale demands of them.”

This kind of two-tiered learning community is not what Yale’s welcoming websites or smooth pamphlets advertised, students say. They express feelings of betrayal, having been led to believe that their admission and their financial aid awards meant that they would be able to compete at the same level as their classmates.

Yet in an article for the Yale Daily News, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeremiah Quinlan says that Yale’s financial aid is not specifically meant to unify the student experience.

“The goal of our financial aid program is to make Yale accessible and affordable to all students who are admitted,” Quinlan said. “It’s a policy built on individualized packages — not to create a singular Yale experience.”

So exceptionally qualified students from diverse income backgrounds are all encouraged to come to Yale, then those on financial aid find that one acceptance for all does not really mean one Yale for all. If they want the same opportunities—academic, extracurricular, even during summer—as their classmates whose families can afford to pay full Yale tuition, they must take out yearly loans to cover their student income contributions, a lasting burden that they thought Yale had promised to cover.

Precluding accusations of laziness or entitlement, students don’t blankly oppose working. Certain students who currently hold jobs at Yale say they don’t plan to stop working if the student income contribution is removed—rather, they would be free to put more of their earnings into savings for the future instead of towards undergraduate tuition.

“I work more than I need to now because I’m saving up to afford applying to medical school, and living,” Yale junior Laura Goetz writes. “If I had all my SIC that I’d been working for, that would make such a big difference to my post-graduation plans, which is not something that often enters the discourse.”

Recent Yale graduate Alec Pollack ’15 testifies to the obstacles that low-income students face in pursuing graduate studies after their undergraduate years at Yale, creating a closed circle of affluence within professional academia.

“The barrier of entry to academia is incredibly high, and its consequences manifest as early as our undergraduate years,” Pollack writes. “In order to produce the quality and quantity of scholarship necessary for academic success, you need money and space, and more than money, you need financial security.”

Rather than passively accepting a status quo that continues to exclude certain students from these fields and professions, Yale should take steps to bolster its low-income community, Pollack says. Mere acceptance to an Ivy League undergraduate school like Yale is not enough to put low-income students on an equal footing with affluent peers when they must shoulder the unequal burden of the student income contribution.

“[Yale] has the power to break social and economic cycles that prevail outside its walls, and to be an immense force for good,” Pollack writes. “It has the power to diversify the academy, now and for the next generation. Isn’t that something Yale purports to want? Isn’t that what it likes to think about itself, to advertise about itself? Then it should do it. It can.”

When the question of eliminating Yale’s student income contribution comes down to the issue of financial feasibility on the part of the university, students and administrators clash. Students emphasize recent budget surpluses in the hundreds of millions of dollars, as well as a uniquely massive endowment with multi-billion dollar investment gains each year; they point to successful fundraising campaigns undertaken for new residential colleges and building renovations.

SUN’s report says, “Yale has repeatedly demonstrated the ability to find money for the things it makes a priority. It would take $15 million—just a day and a half of returns on the endowment—to eliminate the student contribution entirely. A capital campaign for financial aid on the scale of that for residential college construction would generate enough returns to eliminate it in perpetuity.”

The report also quotes Yale administrators, who maintain that “financial aid is a priority, but not the only priority.”One portion of the report compared size of endowment by school and size of student contribution by school for Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford and the University of Chicago. Yale, despite having the second-largest endowment, had the largest student contribution, while the University of Chicago, with the smallest endowment, had the smallest student contribution, having recently eliminated the requirement for its lowest-income students. Princeton’s endowment and student contribution were shown in the report to be lower than those of Yale and Harvard, although Princeton’s endowment per student is actually the largest in the nation.

Princeton’s financial aid information for undergraduate admissions says, “We typically expect freshmen to work 9 hours per week, which allows them ample time for studies and extracurricular activities.” Non-freshmen on financial aid are expected to work 10 hours a week during the school year for a total of 30 weeks (specific expected figures are always deferred to individual award letters). Incoming students are asked to contribute about $1600 in summer savings and returning students are asked to contribute $2600, amounts that are reduced for international students or students from lower-income families. Those who are unable to earn the full amount in summer earnings can apply to have the requirement replaced by one-half grant and one-half loan or job, promoted as an effort to give students more choices in how they spend their summers.

Yale says that its students on financial aid spend on average 8 to 12 hours a week working to fulfill the stated amount of $2850 for freshmen and $3350 for other years. Students’ summer contributions, like at Princeton, are about $1600 and $2600 with reduced amounts for international students. But Yale does not offer any grants to students who cannot earn their full summer contribution; students can only request to replace the summer contribution with additional term-time employment earnings and/or loans. Yale students say they feel acutely this pressure in planning how to spend their summers; their choices are often restricted to paying positions, a rarity in many fields.

“This summer, the internship opportunities that I can take are limited by the student income contribution,” Yale junior Daniel Girado writes. “As someone interested in working in government and public policy, the need to take a job that covers my summer contribution is a serious hurdle, because many of the internships in government are unpaid.”

Compared to Yale students, Princeton students on financial aid have better options for summer savings replacement, and academic year work expectations may be a little lower. But does this explain the lack of local campus activism surrounding the student income contribution?

Last year, the Yale Daily News spoke to former Princeton Director of Financial Aid Don Betterton regarding the movement. The article reported, “According to Betterton, Princeton has always thought that a student work contribution is a good idea. He said he was surprised that students at Yale have taken issue with the student effort.”

In my time on Princeton’s campus, I have observed that student feelings regarding financial aid insufficiencies have been primarily directed at unique Princeton institutions: the eating clubs. If Yale students share feelings of exclusion and inequality due to sacrificing time that could be spent participating in campus extracurriculars or studying to be an academically successful member of the community, are Princeton students’ concerns occupied by the social and dining disparities? Do vocal efforts for affordability in the eating clubs overshadow other pervasive inequalities experienced here at Princeton?

I am a Princeton student on financial aid, with a campus job in the dining hall. I enjoy my employment and the working community that I belong to. I am incredibly fortunate to have found opportunities for leadership and management in my position, as well as a welcoming social group of fellow student employees. I take great pride in my work, and I look forward to playing a significant role in helping the dining hall run smoothly, even taking responsibility for part of the enormous operation of Princeton Reunions.

Is reducing or eliminating the student income contribution the correct step for Ivies like Princeton and Yale? I cannot answer that question. I know that even if I were not required to contribute a certain amount of earnings to the University each year, I would continue to work, if only to be able to remain in my eating club and to begin laying the foundation for the many living expenses I will be solely responsible for after graduating from Princeton in two years.

Yet as I write this article for the Nass, only the second one I’ve been able to work on this semester, I wonder how much more writing I could do with a few more free hours every week. How much more I could hone my passion, how many more of my thoughts I could contribute to this peer publication, without having to worry about being paid a certain amount for my time. If I gave my own testimony for a campaign like SUN’s, I might say something like that.