Yale can help ease low-income awkwardness

A peasant girl is given the chance to go to the royal ball. Fortunate enough to have a fairy godmother to bedeck her in a fine gown and provide her with a coach and horses, she is spared the awkwardness and embarrassment of appearing in her proletarian rags.

A fairy tale of princes and palaces may seem remote to our halls of learning in New Haven, but Yale’s decades-old efforts to transform itself from a place for the privileged to one for the merited makes Cinderella’s story relevant. In seeking greater socioeconomic diversity in its student body and in reaching out to more and more high schools that do not traditionally send students here, Yale will enroll more students for whom the transition from home to Yale is not unlike Cinderella’s change in surroundings from her home to the palace. Sadly, this reality is one without princes and fairy godmothers.

Although one hopes the financial aid packages offered make a Yale education affordable for all students, socioeconomic differences are not abandoned at Phelps Gate. That the average Yalie comes from a family with a household income substantially higher than the national median is a fact that is neither surprising nor one that goes unexpressed in daily campus life.

Disadvantaged students are often adept at camouflaging their backgrounds, but they cannot help noticing the more privileged situations of others around them. On campus, the differences are emphasized by the smallest of activities, such as going out to dinner or getting drinks at a bar. The challenges are not only a matter of comparative misfortune, but also of new or unexpected expenses. For example, the financial aid budget for living expenses doesn’t always cover the new coat and wardrobe the Texan girl needs to brave the cold or the plane ticket home the Californian boy needs to visit his sick mom.

Fortunately, Yale itself is not poor and does make efforts toward addressing issues of income disparity. The residential colleges all sponsor trips to sporting events or arts venues with reduced-price or free tickets, and masters have been known to use their discretionary college funds to support students with special circumstances.

The challenges faced by low-income students are often nebulous and difficult to address. If Yale expands socioeconomic diversity, the increased number of low-income students will necessitate better handling of these difficulties. It may, however, be impossible to get more low-income students in the first place if the school doesn’t do more to make the campus comfortable for them.

The recent News guest column criticizing the decision of the Council of Masters not to subsidize Harvard-Yale transportation (“Cost of Boston trip may be prohibitive,” 11/15) raises a perfect example of a tradition in which all students should be able to take part but from which some may be excluded because of cost. The column suggests efficient means the council could have used to ensure tickets were not wastefully purchased and fairly charges the council with putting its own interests (avoiding administrative hassles) above the interests of disadvantaged students. As a side note, this example also raises the fact that in order to subsidize low-income students, it may be necessary to subsidize everyone or risk stigmatizing those who need the subsidy.

Besides subsidizing activities, Yale College can also aid low-income students by providing better mechanisms for handling their special circumstances. Just as students mask their financial situations when among friends, they are reluctant to approach their dean or master about financial problems. An obvious point of contact should be a financial aid officer, but I’ve yet to talk to a student here who has a positive comment on his Financial Aid Office experiences.

Undoubtedly extravagant 21st birthdays and exotic spring break vacations are here to stay for some and never to arrive for others. The privileged do not consciously make Yale uncomfortable for the disadvantaged, but even everyday situations can make being at Yale awkward for the latter. If Yale is to be successful in attracting a diverse student body and allowing all to feel comfortable during their time here, it must do more to support its disadvantaged students. Even without a fairy godmother, everyone should get a chance to enjoy their time at the ball.

Patrick Ward is a junior in Branford College. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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