True diversity must be Yale’s goal

This weekend, over 100 students and dozens of university administrators gathered at Yale for A Seat at the Table, a conference held by the Roosevelt Institution to address the lack of socioeconomic diversity at selective institutions of higher education across the country. As a student deeply committed to the fight for increased diversity here on campus, I applaud President Richard Levin and Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeff Brenzel for opening Yale’s doors to this pressing conversation.

Hosting this conference shows that the Yale administration understands the need to engage students and their ideas in discussions about campus diversity. The remarkable thing about this weekend, though, extends beyond Yale’s walls. It was the palpable buzz that swarmed out of the incredibly bright and diverse group of students and administrators debating the meritocratic ideals of our country, excited to be engaged with each other, ready to press forward.

The students we welcomed had the opportunity to discuss the state of socioeconomic diversity in higher education with their peers from across the country, as well as with the leading professionals in the field. In the short time we spent together, we forged connections that will channel the impetus of the conference into concerted action in the near future.

Claire Rann, an Amherst junior, said she is planning to start a student group to discuss admissions and financial aid policies when she returns to campus. She is a pilot member of the Telementoring Program and a student representative to the Committee on Admissions and Financial Aid. She plans to attend campus discussions on socioeconomic class as it relates to living at Amherst, along with the rest of Amherst’s 15-member student delegation to the conference, as part of the school’s upcoming Class Awareness Week.

The administrators and scholars who attended the conference called for change that can be made in collaboration between students and professionals. A few solid proposals came out of the weekend: Jerome Karabel, professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of “The Chosen,” suggested that admissions officers should look at the family background, neighborhood and high school of individual applicants to identify qualified students from underrepresented socioeconomic backgrounds instead of relying solely on the average income of their geographic area. This would be an unprecedented shift from a need-blind focus to a more proactive use of class in college admissions.

Rick Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and the editor of “America’s Untapped Resource: Low-Income Students in Higher Education,” called for universities to discuss more openly the outcomes of their initiatives to promote socioeconomic diversity. Kahlenberg cited the importance of the continued collaboration of the group at the conference: “We have the momentum here. The wind is at our backs, but we have to keep pushing on this issue.”

In order to have the frank conversations necessary to evaluate the progress of Yale’s initiatives, we must have the necessary empirical foundation: data on Yale applicants and enrolled students broken down by socioeconomic indicators including family income, financial aid award, parental education level, neighborhood and high school. Dialogue must start with the facts, and we simply do not have them now.

I’m happy to announce, however, that this dialogue will soon take hold at Yale: Dean Brenzel has welcomed the idea of engaging further with interested students to evaluate the University’s efforts to promote socioeconomic diversity on campus. The openness of this relationship with students is a privilege not enjoyed on every campus, though it should be. As we’ve seen, both students and professionals have been remarkable in their efforts to promote low-income access in their own spheres. The time has come to forge ahead together, united in the name of the cause that brought this group together this weekend.

This openness is a step that all universities committed to enrolling more qualified students from underrepresented socioeconomic backgrounds should take. Yale has a remarkable opportunity to demonstrate leadership among its peers by publishing more detailed data on its applicant pool and student body. While others are busy deliberating token gestures like early admission practices, let’s focus on an area where we can change the whole culture of higher education policy. By releasing Yale’s data, we will send a message to the higher education community that we are committed to critically evaluating our attempts to increase socioeconomic diversity, even while we play catch-up on financial aid. The information will also be useful to other universities that can learn from and replicate our efforts, and to researchers and policy think tanks that are doing national-scale work on these important issues.

I hope that the buzz of this conference gives you a chance to consider how socioeconomic class contributes to your experience at Yale. I also hope you have ideas about how that situation might be improved to contribute more constructively. We are primed for a serious conversation about class, meritocracy and the Yale experience. The administration has opened its doors, so please take the opportunity to pull up a seat at the table.

Paul Schneider is a junior in Trumbull College and the co-director of the Roosevelt Institution Center on Education Policy.

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