Aid focus should be on economic diversity

The past year saw several new beginnings for the Yale Admissions Office: a new dean, a new program of “student ambassadors” designed to enhance Yale’s appeal among low-income families and a new tier of financial aid, which doubtless contributed to the University’s record-breaking number of undergraduate applicants. Though Yale declined to take a lead on financial aid — letting Harvard jump ahead once again — the laudable stated goal of the Admissions Office and of top administrators has been to broaden the spectrum of students for whom a Yale education is a possibility. Unfortunately, they still have a long way to go.

While the applicant pool has gotten deeper, it remains extremely narrow. The Yale College Class of 2009 was drawn from roughly 900 high schools, versus the more than 10,500 schools that Harvard economists concluded offered students of Cambridge caliber. Although we expect to see moderate gains on this front for the Class of 2010 — just as Harvard did this year, having led that round of aid reform in 2004 as well as the most recent one a month ago — it seems clear that both universities have plenty of work to do if they truly intend to make good on the stated goals of their aid reforms.

Granted, the Harvard economists’ figures were based on test scores alone, excluding the application elements that tend to differentiate students from thousands of their peers — work experience, extracurriculars and essays, for example. But it is the development of these skills that Yale should be doing more to cultivate in schools that do not have access to the kind of college counselors, writing tutors or other advantages offered at the 100 high schools whose alumni make up fully one quarter of the last five years’ worth of Elis.

In the fall, the News proposed that Yale look to Stanford University’s Quest Scholars Program — which works to support disadvantaged students for up to five years and has seen 84 percent of its alumni attend Stanford, Berkeley, MIT or an Ivy League school — or to Posse programs at schools like Middlebury or Brandeis, which work to link small groups of students from low-income families and admit them together, for cues on developing stronger relationships with low-income public schools. But Yale has not made any similar moves, and while the student presentations can do much to put a human face on an institution where some students may otherwise find it difficult to see themselves, the University should can do more to appeal to low-income students in more remote areas.

Yale’s ambassadors are limited by time and money. Subsidizing longer or more distant trips during spring break is necessary if the program is to appeal to a broader cross-section of low-income schools more than to the alma mater of participating Yalies. Expanding alumni contacts and availability — even if only for annual trips to distant schools or centralized monthly meetings — can help humanize Yale for students who have no friends or predecessors to serve as role models.

Throughout the year, Yale officials said they do not intend to further expand financial aid, though Harvard’s latest leap may well change that. But whether or not Yale adds more zeroes to its aid checks — which, as we have argued before, it should — it can at least do plenty to spread the wealth.

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