A different income, a different college experience

My mom worried when I decided to apply to Yale, but not that I wouldn’t get in. She worried that I would get in, and that she would have to tell me I couldn’t go.

No one from my town had attended Yale — or any other Ivy League university — and so the language of “need-blind admissions” and “gift aid” was foreign. What my mom did understand was that the cost of Yale’s annual tuition was more than our family’s annual income, and so when my acceptance letter arrived with a financial aid package that made my attending Yale a possibility, my mom was shocked and grateful. I was, too.

Perhaps this is why I initially skeptical of the Yale Undergraduate Organizing Committee’s recent push for financial aid reform. Yale’s current financial aid policy has been good to me. It has given me over $155,000 in gift aid and allowed me to attend a university that would have been out of my realm of possibilities otherwise.

Four years later, I am still shocked and grateful. But as a senior who has recently been reviewing her resume and struggling to plan life after Yale, I have begun to realize that the world is not quite my oyster, and that maybe the UOC is onto something.

You see, Yale’s current financial aid policy requires that students contribute $4,200 each year in self-help through a combination of work-study employment, student loans and summer earnings. To pay my self-help requirement for four years, I will have worked (at $10/hour) a total of 1,680 hours. (And that’s assuming I needed no spending money.) Work-study jobs have allowed me to refine my secretarial and cataloguing skills, but I am finding myself under-qualified as I contemplate my post-Yale life.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised: My more affluent Yale classmates had at least 1,680 more hours to dedicate to their classes, reading The Wall Street Journal or writing poetry. (No matter how great my innate poetry skills, whom would you predict to be the better poet — me, or the kid with 1,680 more hours of practice?)

Yale’s current self-help requirement does not make extracurricular activities impossible, but it makes them difficult. My freshman year, I spent approximately 20 hours a week writing for the Yale Daily News. I compensated for the time financially by filling my self-help through loans. By the end of the year, however, I had depleted my high school savings and had no spending money, so sophomore year I had to get a job. I have worked 10 to 20 hours a week since then.

Yale didn’t technically prevent me from juggling work and the YDN, or from joining the Dramat or Dwight Hall Ex-Comm. But like many students who come from low-income families, I felt guilty for forsaking work for a selfish activity. Once I started to earn money, I couldn’t turn back.

The UOC’s platform, which can be viewed at http://www.petitiononline.com/yaleaid/petition.html, proposes cutting self-help in half and paying students on financial aid to participate in certain extracurricular activities.

Searching for jobs, I realized my selection is more limited than that of my classmates, because I have loan payments due. Even though I chose to work rather than to pay my self-help contribution entirely through loans, I have still incurred debt much higher than Yale’s current financial aid policy would lead you to believe.

Although Yale requires only the parental contribution recommended by a student’s FASFA-generated Student Aid Report, the SAR does not consider that when a family lives hand-to-mouth, things come up. This year, for example, my mom could only produce half of her required contribution, so I had to take out additional loans.

Under the UOC’s proposed policy, however, my parental contribution would be waived, since my family income is under $40,000 a year.

And although it’s normal for seniors to not know their precise post-graduation plans, I don’t even have a broad idea of what career field might interest me. I can’t help but to wonder whether I would have more direction had my summer endeavors not been limited by salary bracket.

The UOC, however, proposes a summer self-help contribution that is lower and can be waived at least once.

I will graduate this May with fond memories of Yale, and I am grateful that Yale’s current financial aid policy gave me the opportunity to be here. But are my memories the same as those of my more affluent peers, and were our opportunities at Yale equal? Well, no — not exactly.

Should they have been? I guess that’s for you to decide.



Alexis Wolff is a senior in Berkeley College.

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