Nees: ‘Self-help’ slams students

This week, when the University announced a 4.8 percent increase in tuition and room and board for the 2010-11 academic year, President Levin sought to be reassuring. Despite a financial crisis, he said, Yale would continue to be among the least expensive Ivy League universities. Parents of students on financial aid wouldn’t experience any term bill increase at all. And the hike would be accompanied by a 10 percent increase in financial aid expenditures, to boot.

But more stealthily hidden in his announcement was a much more insidious change: a 15 percent increase in the “self-help” requirement of students on financial aid — from $2,600 this year to $3,000 next.

Yale’s self-help requirement is rooted in an American ethic of hard work. The policy, that all students “receiving financial aid are expected to contribute to their education,” as the University said in a statement, means that students are confronted with two ways to meet the obligation. They can choose either to emerge at graduation more than $10,000 in debt, or work a campus job, earning on average $12.50 an hour. To accumulate $3,000 in a year at that rate, one would need to work 240 hours, or about 10 hours each week during the entirety of the academic year.

To be sure, there are few students who would not gladly work in exchange for the education they receive. For the more than 50 percent of Yale College students who receive some form of financial aid, there is no expectation of a handout. But in practice, only a certain type of Yale student need be burdened with satisfying these paternal expectations: the poorest.

Working students have the same obligations as all Yalies, attending class for perhaps 10 hours a week and studying for 20. If this week’s decision has sent no other message, it’s been that for the most needy, work has become as equally important as class time. The minimum obligations working students have are a third greater than the other half of Yale’s students, and it puts them at a competitive disadvantage in actively immersing themselves in extracurricular Yale.

The $400 increase (six times the rate of inflation) may seem trivial to many Yale students and apparently seemed that way to Yale’s administrators. For students fulfilling a self-help requirement, however, it means working an hour and 15 minutes more each week.

Meanwhile, much like the federal government’s cap on Social Security payroll taxes, the highest earning of Yale’s families continue to benefit from a flat-rate fee system. Though financial aid operates on a sliding scale according to need, there is no such sliding payment obligation for families according to their ability to pay. In this sense, the problem with Yale’s tuition isn’t that it’s too high. It’s that it’s too low. This week’s decision compounds the regressive system.

When the University announced a 3.5 percent term bill increase in 2001, President Levin boasted that “no students receiving financial aid from Yale will have to pay any increase next year if their financial circumstances remain the same.” Levin can’t say the same this year, and sure enough, he very carefully didn’t. “Parents of students receiving financial aid will not experience any increase in the amount they contribute to support their children’s education,” he said Tuesday.

Though the university calls the fee a “self-help” contribution, in reality, there’s nothing preventing Yale parents from paying. Only for some students is “self-help” actually self-help. Hit hardest now are students whose parents were never paying anything at all, and can’t afford to contribute to the costs that routinely arise with college life. They’ve never able to contribute to costs for textbooks or travel. They’ve never been able to contribute to their children’s “self-help.” These are students who have long since become accustomed to paying these costs themselves, and thanks to Yale, will do so next year more still.

Yale officials shrugged off the increase by pointing to opportunities for on-campus work, despite how difficult such jobs have become to obtain, much less reconcile with class schedules at increasingly long hours. In exchange for the paltry $1.1 million in additional revenue Yale will yield from the increase, working students — as busy and overburdened as other Yalies — will be forced to work more each week. It’s a burden that more than half of Yale students will never have to bear in exchange for the privilege of attending this university.

If only we were all so privileged.

Ryan Nees is a sophomore in Trumbull College.

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