On route to aid reform, a major roadblock

As the Undergraduate Organizing Committee would probably argue, yesterday was likely a turning point in the campus debate over financial aid. Unfortunately, we worry the debate may have turned in the wrong direction.

Prior to yesterday’s student sit-in at the Yale Admissions Office — which resulted in 15 charges of trespassing — we had been impressed by the UOC’s campaign for financial aid reform. The group focused on offering a positive agenda with a set of well-articulated policies to reduce the burden on financial aid recipients. As we wrote in this space in November, the call for a bolder financial aid policy is an important one, and the UOC’s proposals to reduce self-help requirements and end family contributions from the lowest-income students pointed in the right direction. And with highly touted new policies at Harvard and Princeton already on the table, the UOC appeared ideally positioned to create a broad consensus for change.

On Hillhouse Avenue yesterday, the UOC may have lost that consensus — and in doing so, reduced its ability to accomplish its goals. Having attracted the great middle of Yale students, the group seemed determined to alienate everyone who believes change can be accomplished without occupying buildings. Two days after Yale President Richard Levin said the University planned to unveil some improvements to its policies, the UOC suggested it simply didn’t care — it would prefer to loudly protest that the University has not accepted all of its platform rather than acknowledge Yale’s apparent readiness to implement even some of it. And in doing so, the organization has sharply reduced the incentives of the administration to listen to students at all. If Yale makes only some changes, it will be vilified; if the University makes all of them, it will appear unable to resist anyone with a loud enough megaphone.

Part of the fault for yesterday’s scene lies with Levin, who could stand to show more public compassion on the issue of financial aid. It is possible to say both that Yale has one of the best financial aid packages in the country and that its policies still place an onerous burden on aid recipients; it is reasonable to argue both that reform is costly and that students and parents make real sacrifices for a Yale diploma. We believe, unlike many UOC members, that Levin is genuinely committed to improving Yale’s financial aid offerings, yet his public statements have at times made it difficult for us to justify that belief.

But we are not primarily interested in Levin’s compassion — what we really want is change. And those of us on campus who support financial aid reform but were embarrassed by yesterday’s sit-in know that this kind of change does not come with ultimatums and publicity stunts. It comes with creating the sort of consensus that seemed to be building before yesterday, a consensus that calls for a firm commitment to making Yale better but recognizes that improvement sometimes takes just a little patience or compromise.

Yesterday, the UOC suggested it had no desire to listen to what the University actually planned to do, and no need for the support of the rest of us. For the sake of real progress on financial aid, that’s too bad.

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