Economic diversity was focus of forum

Over the weekend, socioeconomic diversity took center stage at Yale in a major meeting of student and academic leaders from across the country.

The Roosevelt Institution, a student-run think tank, sponsored a conference where students, administrators and policy-makers discussed ways to increase access to selective colleges and universities for students from low-income backgrounds. The conference, titled “A Seat at the Table,” began Friday with keynote addresses from Yale President Richard Levin and William Bowen, president emeritus of both Princeton University and the Mellon Foundation.

Levin said low-income students deserve extra weight in admissions, akin to that given to minorities and legacies.

“This country is in danger of becoming — has already become — less of a land of opportunity,” Levin said. “We want to preserve socioeconomic mobility, and education is a vehicle for that.”

But Levin said colleges alone could not solve the problem and that serious deficiencies in secondary education need to be resolved on the national level.

While most students agreed with Levin’s sentiments, some said they thought that by avoiding specifics, Levin failed to lay out a vision for improving access for low-income students.

“President Bowen outlined his past contributions to socioeconomic equality,” said Noah Dobin-Bernstein ’07, who attended the conference. “I wish President Levin would have outlined plans to make equally large and equally innovative contributions now.”

Dobin-Berstein said inequality would remain as long as the University required low-income students to work a large number of hours each week. But Levin said studies had shown that work-study programs do not greatly affect students’ ability to use Yale’s resources or participate in extracurricular activities.

Virginia Bailey, a senior at the University of Michigan and one of the Friday panelists, said that while the real innovation would happen once everyone left the conference, she hoped the discussion would encourage representatives in their plans to aid the socioeconomic imbalance nationwide.

“Selective schools have so many resources — money, professors, facilities — and this gives them an ethical obligation to support education in general,” she said. “So how can [elite schools] create a community with local technical and community colleges so that those schools are some place where any student would be proud to get an education?”

While Bailey said some of the sessions could have been more participatory — she described one in which students were given a long, overly complicated history of financial aid — she said she planned to remain in contact with people she had met at the conference.

Tom Parker, dean of admissions and financial aid at Amherst College, said he welcomed the newfound attention placed on socioeconomic diversity by an increasing number of institutions.

“If you can get people competing on social justice, instead of just competing over low yield, that’s a good thing,” he said. “I hope to shift the conversation [from yield rates] to who students are eating with at dinner.”

Yale Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeff Brenzel said the Yale Ambassadors program, which sends current Yale undergraduates to speak at high schools across the country, enables Yale to reach out to more lower-income students than Yale’s admissions staff could reach themselves.

“We will continue to expand outreach [efforts] and cooperate [with] our peer schools … to spread the word about the need-based aid programs offered in the Ivy League,” Brenzel said.

Emma Vawter ’10 said she thinks the financial aid policies now in place are sufficient, but good information about those options is hard to access.

“I was really lucky with my financial aid package, and I wouldn’t be here without it, but people don’t realize this — that Yale is accessible to them,” Vawter said.

In the spring of 2005, the University eliminated the parent contribution for students from families earning under $45,000 and reduced it for students from families earning between $45,000 and $60,000.

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