Trying to shed the Yale admissions myth

In Minot, N.D., a town of 36,567 that hugs the Canadian border, rolling green hills give way to endless miles of flat land. The one-room train station is, on a typical day, packed with expectant friends greeting family back to the township that hosts the annual state fair.

High schoolers Becky Lebrun and Laura Rasmusson, both 18, both straight-A high school seniors, plan to stay in Minot all their lives. They looked puzzled when asked if they would leave — even to attend Yale University, one of those prestigious, far-away Ivies.

“When we look out to the coast, either one, we see a totally different world,” Lebrun said. “We know that this is a better way to live.”

They are not, apparently, alone. For an unknown, unspoken cross section of American high school students Yale is an idea, a story, a myth that some top students like like Lebrun and Rasmusson want no part of.

Too expensive. Too competitive. Too far away.

The Yale Daily News traveled this summer to the vast stretches that lie between the country’s populous and cosmopolitan coasts, to the places where Yale’s name does not resonate the way it does in New York’s private day schools or Massachusetts’ boarding academies or the public schools of San Francisco’s suburbs.

The News interviewed 62 students in these regions of the nation’s heartland, selected by their guidance counselors as the schools’ best students or what some called “Yale prospects.”

Yale admissions officials have made a point of luring nontraditional applicants to Yale from around the country, through mass mailings, an elaborate Web site and information sessions nationwide. But despite what Yale calls its best efforts, many top students are not getting the message.

“They perceive of places that are highly competitive as being inaccessible. That’s not the message we want to relay to them,” said Dean of Undergraduate Admissions and Financial Aid Richard Shaw. “We’re trying different ways to reach the community that, for lack of a better term, have less access to the kind of guidance and advice that others have.”

Today, Yale College boasts students from all 50 states and over 50 foreign countries, and financial aid extends to nearly 40 percent of its students. More than half of the students attended public high school, 28 percent are minorities, 9 percent come from abroad and 49 percent are women.

In most cases, Yale had reached the college or guidance counselors. By and large, they hold the University in high regard. But, often, they couldn’t — or didn’t have the time to — get the message across to their students.

“If these kids thought: the sky is the limit, then — ” said MelaDee Patterson, a counselor at the public Park Hill South High School in Riverside, Mo. “But they don’t have the confidence to even do the application process. These kids right here are our cream of the crop. And they’re going to Washington University [in St. Louis, Mo.].”

Yale’s $36,400 price tag is scary

Juniors Wes Cauble, Tyler Wilhite and Emily Hoffman walked into Patterson’s office, decked out in Gap and Abercrombie & Fitch. They are Park Hill South’s top three juniors, and Yale is not on their college lists. It’s too expensive, they said.

“We’re affluent in the Midwest. But not compared to Boston,” Cauble said. “[But] just because we have money doesn’t mean we can afford Yale.”

To go to Yale, “you have to have money,” Patterson said. “You have to be loaded,” Cauble added.

Right now they all know they can go to the University of Missouri for less than $2,000. That’s enticing to them — and, they said pointedly, to their parents.

The trio and their counselor said they didn’t understand why Yale didn’t use part of its endowment to lower tuition. Cauble runs cross country and organizes student council activities. Wilhite plays piano and is in the debate club. Hoffman plays basketball and soccer. They’re all top students, and their parents went to state schools.

Why wouldn’t Yale want them and want to help pay for them? To them, Yale’s price tag makes the considering the University pointless. Wilhite said confidently that college prestige doesn’t raise salaries later.

To them, there’s no aid at Yale, and no point in asking.

“Being in Kansas City affects our view towards upper schools. We’re more grounded here. And, we’re kind of intimidated by those schools,” Hoffman said. “We don’t have anything like that here.”

How could I get in?

Junior Alison Peters plays field hockey, is a strong science student and volunteers in a local center for the deaf.

Her mom reads the U.S. News & World Report college reviews to her “like every night” and her dad — a teacher at East High School, in Denver — makes a point of telling her which of the seniors head off to “top” schools each year.

Students at East High School and other Denver public schools are open to going away to college, said Carl Flageolle, a guidance counselor at East High. There’s a do-it-yourself and do-what-you-want attitude in Denver, he said.

But Peters has been consulting everyone she could think of — her parents, her friends, anyone. As of last spring, her dream colleges were Pomona, Stanford, Columbia, Georgetown and Yale.

Many top students said they felt there was no way they would ever get into Yale. They will not be sending off for information or for applications, they said.

Some students said they did see a way into Yale: money.

“A lot of wealthy people can afford to have their kids educated, and that carries over,” said Lisa Hughes, a student at the public North Allegheny High School in Pennsylvania during her junior English class.

Most of their families were fairly well-off, but not well-off enough to easily dole out tuition to Yale. And despite living in an upper-class suburb of Pittsburgh, Pa., none of these students had the big names they believed would get them in.

“I know a lot of people who just think about the Bushes,” said Brendan Gillis, one of Hughes’ classmates. “You have to have a big name to get in there.”

Stuck up and not diverse

George Brian DeJean Jr. was recruited by Harvard for its wrestling team. But when Harvard admitted him last spring, he didn’t consider the offer, he said.

Harvard students, like those at all the Ivies, didn’t exude friendliness, said DeJean, who was a senior at the all-boy, parochial Brother Martin High School in New Orleans, La. DeJean said he loved his high school because it had a diverse student body. DeJean, like many Brother Martin students, received financial aid.

He and fellow senior Chris Kieffer sat in the library late one afternoon discussing their college choices. The librarians had let them in after hours because they were top, trustworthy students.

DeJean, who is also a member of the Reserve Officer Training Corps, is attending Christian Brothers University in Memphis, Tenn., this year. He’d visited Notre Dame University in South Bend, Ind., and disliked the atmosphere. People he met didn’t say “hi” to him on the street, he said. He decided that all Northern schools — including Harvard and Yale — would be stuck up.

“Most people would probably think it’d be no fun, all studying,” DeJean said.

Kieffer, who will attend the University of Mississippi this year, nudged DeJean, as if prodding him to be candid. DeJean gave a shrug, so Kieffer blurted out, “the Ivy League is stuck up.”

It’s an Ivy

When asked to characterize Yale, many high schoolers and counselors responded quickly that it is “an Ivy.”

For those who have not yet looked at Yale, the University is not the Ivy with strong humanities, lots of student theater and residential colleges. For them, it is just another Ivy.

Parents and students seem to be “brand-conscious” now, and any Ivy school will pretty much pass the test, said Kay Frye, a counselor at the public Highland Park High School in St. Paul, Minn.

“It’s kind of a choice of a Chevrolet or a Porsche,” Frye said. “How do you want to ride?”

But, beyond calling Yale and the other Ivies “top-tier,” Frye had little to say.

“[Yale’s] highly competitive, an excellent school,” Frye said.

Although the Yale admissions Web site boasts Yale’s recent Rhodes scholars and professional football and baseball draftees, few counselors and students had actually checked the site. Most had not heard of Yale’s $500 million Science Hill expansion, globalization center or residential college renovations.

“Sometimes you find yourself saying, ‘Harvard’s brick, and Yale is stone,'” said Jill Apple, a college counselor at the private, plush St. Paul Academy in Minnesota, where Yale is a fairly popular school among graduating seniors.

Apple was the dean of admissions at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., and remembers seeing Yale and the other Ivies at college fairs across the country — though not often.

“Yale, like many other Ivies, you don’t see them on the road as much at college fairs because they don’t need to be,” Apple said. “They’re a pretty typical Ivy.”

When asked about her opinion of financial aid at Yale, Apple laughed. For all the recent improvements that top schools like Yale have made in aid recently, Apple said the news may not be reaching many potential applicants.

“Out here, I’m not sure how tuned in people are in the ‘financial aid wars,'” she said.

Why come?

Still, most students said if they did apply to Yale and get in, they’d almost definitely attend.

To them, they said, Yale is a ticket up. One student described a Yale degree as an “escalator,” another as a “key” and another as an “I-can-do-anything certificate.”

Scott Vignos, a student at Highland Park in St. Paul, said Yale is “exclusive, very exclusive,” but added that he would join that circle in a minute.

“You’d have a huge alumni network that you’d have afterwards,” Vignos said. “It’s comforting knowing you’d be being taught by the best of the best to be the best of the best.”

Some will still stay home

None of the students’ comments surprised Shaw. As head of the Yale admissions office, he said he’s heard it all before and that most of those students’ perceptions are founded on misinformation.

He pointed out that Yale College has a diverse student body. He said the University has doubled its recruiting efforts in the past 10 years and will continue its efforts. Within the next year, the admissions Web site will feature virtual tours of campus. The site was revamped and expanded last year.

“They have more access than ever before to the information,” Shaw said.

The Undergraduate Admissions Office is worried that more far-away students will shy away from Yale as a result of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. Many students may want to be closer to home, Shaw said.

Just as always, though, admissions officials are traveling the world to attract top students, and in the past few weeks they’ve met standing ovations, Shaw said.

For all the information and recruiting officials Yale will send out, some top students will not hear the message.

Lebrun and Rasmusson said last spring that they’d never seriously considered leaving North Dakota — they had not been deterred by Yale’s cost, rumored snobbery or image as a competitive place.

Like many top students, Lebrun and Rasmusson didn’t consider Yale because they didn’t want to leave their homes and families.

“I look out my window here and I see the sunset,” Rasmusson. “I wouldn’t want to be somewhere where buildings would block it.”

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