I am not on financial aid. I work because I want to, not because I am required by Yale to contribute a certain amount of money to my education, or because my parents cannot pay the amount the University asks them for. I am extraordinarily fortunate. Nonetheless, I joined 14 other undergraduates who walked into the admissions office last Thursday morning and explained that we would not leave until the University had announced significant changes to its financial aid policy. The day ended not with changes that would have benefited more than 2,000 Yale undergraduates, but with the police arresting us and escorting us from the building.
Every one of us — both the 15 students who sat in, and the hundreds of students, professors and union members who spent almost nine hours rallying, singing and risking frostbite outside — had a different reason for spending the day at 38 Hillhouse Ave. to call for financial aid reform. Some of us were there because of personal experience with Yale’s financial aid system. Others were deeply offended by President Levin’s dismissive responses to questions at last Tuesday night’s open forum, and his demand that students choose between a reduction in their parents’ contributions or their own. After a campaign that began early last fall, many students had waited long enough for a response from the administration, particularly with the University’s budget due to be finalized soon.
I am a latecomer to the financial aid reform movement. Like most Yale students, I have close friends who are on financial aid and who work extremely long hours to pay their own, and in some cases, their parents’ contribution to their tuition, room and board. And like 1,144 other Yale students, I signed onto the petition for financial aid reform, believing that my signature would make more of a contribution than any story I could tell. But over time, I came to understand the degree to which financial aid divides the Yale campus.
The Yale experience is supposed to be a tremendous one, worth more than $40,000 a year. But students who are working 20 hours a week are not having the same experience here as students who can spend those 20 hours going to masters’ teas, participating in a wide range of extracurricular activities, and getting to know their fellow undergraduates. President Levin’s rhetoric about student contributions and financial aid is full of words like “responsibility” and “self-help.” These are worthy principles, but it is disturbing that the administration thinks that students from low-income families have more to learn about them than their more privileged classmates. Is it really in line with the principles of an elite university like Yale to give students different experiences based on what their families can afford?
But there is another reason that I spent Thursday sitting on the admissions office floor. Sixty-two percent of New Haven households have incomes of $40,000 a year or less — 38 percent make $20,000 or less. If Yale modeled Harvard’s policy of not requiring a family contribution for students from households with less than $40,000 a year, it would be infinitely easier for many New Haven children to be able to come to Yale. In the past, one of the ties that drew Yale and New Haven together was the number of local children who went to Yale. While Yale has grown from a local college to a global university, and New Haven is attempting to fix a school system plagued by low test scores and high dropout rates, financial aid reform would still make the dream of attending Yale more attainable for many New Haven families.
I’ve spent a great deal of time working in Dixwell, a neighborhood right next door to Yale. Many of the parents I’ve met have told me how their children can see into Payne Whitney Gymnasium, but rarely get a chance to go there. A new University program started bringing more Dixwell children to Payne Whitney this month. Financial aid reform could help guarantee that more of those children, when they are old enough, can have access to the rest of Yale’s resources as students.
Financial aid reform is not simply about letting some undergrads work fewer hours per week — it’s about building a strong, diverse community where everyone has access to the same experiences, whether their parents make $20,000 a year or $250,000. This is why, on Thursday, an entire community came to the admissions office to demand real and comprehensive financial aid reform. The people who gathered were undergraduates, graduate students, professors and workers in a number of Yale’s unions. The only people missing were, once again, the members of Yale’s administration.
Alyssa Rosenberg is a junior in Silliman College and Ward 22 democratic committee co-chair. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.