Author and journalist Daniel Brook ’00 criticized what he described as a disturbing trend at Yale on Monday, saying that inequalities in higher education are having a serious impact on the lives of those entering the workforce.
At a Davenport College Master’s Tea, Brook spoke about his recent book, “The Trap: Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All America,” which argues that socioeconomic stratification adversely affects all levels of society and destroys the feasibility of the “American dream.” He focused specifically on the issue of higher education, both in terms of who attends elite institutions and what issues alumni face after graduation.
Brook said Yale and New Haven have changed in the seven years since his graduation.
“It is clear to me that this place is changing, not necessarily for the better, and it is clear to the rest of the U.S.,” he said. “Yale no longer symbolizes merit but privilege.”
The problem is not limited to the University, he said, noting that three-quarters of students at top universities come from families in the top quarter of American income brackets.
Brook contended that this disparity is not the fault of admissions offices, but of the so-called “Reaganomics” of the 1980s, which gave tax cuts to the wealthy while taking money from public education and financial aid.
“It starts in elementary school, not higher education,” Brook said, citing studies correlating SAT scores with family incomes.
He also discussed how stratification affects graduates of elite universities like Yale, who often face a choice between a middle-class salary in a job that they are passionate about and a high-profile but potentially less rewarding job, such as consulting or investment banking.
“In 1970, starting inner-city teachers in New York City made only $2,000 less than starting lawyers. Now they make $100,000 less,” Brook said. This problem is compounded by the increasing cost of living in the large cities where many college graduates wish to go, he said.
Furthermore, Brook said, he has found through research and discussions with former classmates that those who are entering the workforce feel pressure to take strenuous, high-paying jobs in order to pay off student loans. He described one friend, a corporate lawyer who is “working from nine to ten or more, doing the opposite of what he wants, and admits that he has no life” in order to pay off law school debts.
Some faculty members present at the tea said they have also observed this trend.
“It breaks my heart when I see people whose hearts are in public service really sell out,” said Betsy Sledge, former associate master of Calhoun College and writing tutor for Silliman College.
Amy Jones ’09 said she was struck by Brook’s descriptions of the Yale he knew.
“The most startling comment was at the beginning, when he talked about how seven years ago there was a Store 24 and now there is Gourmet Heaven,” she said. “If you come from a community where it is Store 24 and then you see G-Heav … you begin to look at the expectations and how you and your values fit it.”
Other students found his generalizations about Yale inaccurate.
Chris Lash ’11 said that although he was worried about encountering elitism when he arrived at Yale this year, he has found his fellow students “grounded, well-read and a good mix.”
“Obviously I don’t know their economic situations, but I wonder how much of this is [Brook] being especially perceptive and how much is maybe not there,” Lash said.
Sledge, who worked with Brook during his time at Yale as an adviser to The New Journal, encouraged him to come to campus and speak about his work.