Curtis: Prize caps not prizeworthy

For probably the only time in my life, I find myself in the shoes of a Wall Street banker who has just found out that he won’t get a bonus this year. As a student majoring in Classics, a specialized field with limited opportunities for funding, I’ve come to rely on the money the department awards annually to support work related to my discipline. And, as was recently announced, such prizes will now be capped at $1,000.

I find the decision a disappointing fix to Yale’s larger budgetary problems for reasons beyond its implications for me. While financial aid programs certainly deserve support, the prize funds are not the place the University should look to make up the shortfall brought on by the economic downturn. Shifting money from prizes that benefit very few people to financial aid rewards that benefit many may be more palatable than slicing library and security budgets, but it goes against the purpose of the original donations. The department prizes are intentionally merit-based; they encourage students to pursue academic interests and reward them for excelling in their respective fields. To reallocate these funds based on need does not just breach the University’s fiduciary duty to its donors, it misses the point of the prizes altogether.

Citing one anonymous benefactor who in retrospect would have preferred establishing a scholarship to a prize, Yale has wrongly assumed that all prize donors feel similarly. The transfer of their money from merit-based to need-based rewards, however, raises important questions of the donors’ intent. I emphatically urge Yale to reconsider its options before putting this policy into effect. If not, I can only hope the Attorney General’s office will come to the conclusion, as I have, that the cap lacks a legal basis.

Administrators have argued that some prizes have become unreasonably large, spurred on by what Provost Salovey has called “the miracle of compounded investment returns.” And some of them have. When Samuel A. Galpin, class of 1870, endowed a Latin prize in 1901, the total reward was $50. Its purchasing power in 2010 would be roughly $1,300, but endowment returns have allowed it to grow to many times more than that. In addition, the role of the University has changed greatly since 1901. What was once a loose confederacy of insular departments has morphed over time into a fully-fledged corporate body that collectively allocates its resources. The question, then, is whether giving away thousands of dollars as prizes each year is a worthwhile use of university funds, especially with the budget as tight as it is now.

I think it is. While donors like Galpin may not have expected their prizes to generate windfalls, the fact that they do is not some sort of problem requiring resolution. Especially for majors in esoteric departments where having academic expertise rarely translates into a marketable skill set, the large prizes provide an opportunity to gain real life experience. Unless one intends to pursue academia upon graduation, majoring in an uncommon subject greatly limits job prospects. While $1,000 is still worth competing for, the larger sums now allotted to the prizes allow Classics majors to finance independent endeavors. Just as the Yale College Dean’s Office finances research in the sciences, these prizes enable students with niche interests to broaden their experience.

Winning the Galpin Prize after my sophomore year has allowed me to take two unpaid summer internships, internships that were especially hard to come by since the “Languages” section of my resume reads only “Latin and ancient Greek.” I’m not alone — many in specialty fields rely on the prize income to pursue opportunities they would not otherwise be able to take. For us, the cap has very real consequences. Worse, for many more, it greatly diminishes the incentive to major in specialty fields.

During times of budget shortfall, the University is forced to make tough decisions. I understand that, and I also know that the financial aid program needs funding from somewhere. But right now the endowment managers are looking in the wrong place.

David Curtis is a junior in Silliman College.


  • DBF proud mom

    Your essay was beautifully written and expresses some of the thoughts I had myself after reading the article yesterday. My daughter was a recipient of one of the more modest prizes, which nonetheless allowed her to pursue an internship overseas, just as you had.
    Perhaps a reasonable compromise would be to take the “current purchasing power” amount, add say an extra 100-200% to it, and use that figure for the final prize amount. This can be justified because the needs and experiences of these students are vastly more complicated now, requiring more funding. This approach might allow the prize to be distributed to a few more students, which is not unreasonable given that the size of the University has grown so much since some of these prizes were originally endowed. The remainder might be used to enhance the department for which it was created, to further very specific opportunities which promote academic excellence and distinction.
    To use the money for general financial aid does seem to fly in the face of the intent of the donors, which was strictly merit based. Need blind admissions requiring financial aid is the job of the general Yale endowment, which is funded by donations given for that purpose.
    The fact that the worth of the prize funds has grown should not give license to use them in a wrongheaded manner.

  • Yes.

    Mr. Curtis you are absolutely right. I think the word “prize” perhaps evokes the wrong sense of what these rewards really are. They are meant to encourage and to defray the costs of further endeavors. It is ridiculous that Yale is siphoning away these funds to itself. Thank you for your piece.

  • Yale Parent

    Curtis, a very fine piece. One of the prime reasons my daughter chose Yale over other schools whose departments are just as good if not better in her field was because of the opportunity to compete for prize money.

    #1 is exactly right: “Need blind admissions requiring financial aid is the job of the general Yale endowment, which is funded by donations given for that purpose.”

  • y11

    Amen, brother.

  • lmc

    Hear and hear again!

  • Undergrad

    I agree that the prizes should not be capped, and I think that would hardly be a drop in the bucket as far as balancing Yale’s budget. But I take issue with the idea that “Unless one intends to pursue academia upon graduation, majoring in an uncommon subject greatly limits job prospects”. How is history, for example, which is one of the most popular majors at Yale, any more relevant to non-academic jobs than classics? And other majors, particularly the sciences and engineering, provide lots of “marketable skills” such as advanced mathematics and computer programming languages, but are far less “common” than history. The one example you give of how majoring in classics has hurt you–the fact that your foreign languages are dead languages–doesn’t really apply to other “uncommon” majors since foreign languages are normally taken care of through the distributional requirements, not the major requirements. (And language majors are comparitively uncommon.) Even if students in uncommon majors will have more trouble getting jobs, how is a one-time prize going to help? Even if it “encourages further exploration” in the field, how does this add any more skills that have relevance beyond academia? Still, the prizes do have (mostly academic) benefits and should remain uncapped, largely as a matter of convincing future donors that their wishes will be honored.

  • David

    Thanks for the comment, Undergrad. True, the usefulness of any liberal arts degree is limited, and so one might not expect a Classics major to have any more trouble getting an internship than, say, a history major. But this is not an especially fruitful comparison to make: I do not think the prize money for history majors should not be limited to $1000, either. Liberal arts students, regardless of their academic interest, benefit greatly from the larger prizes because they provide the financial means for both academic and professional growth. It just so happens that the prizes tend to be larger in smaller majors like Classics, which is why I chose to focus my column on these majors in particular.

  • Tanner Mayes

    Choosing a field of study where people are willing to pay you to study it is the definition of “productive member of society”.


    What you are actually suggesting is that Yale subsidize your life, even after you graduate.

    At the expense of financial aid for those who can’t afford college.


  • Anon

    Heck, I’d be happy if prizes were cut out from some of the prize-rich departments and given to others.

    Religious Studies has THREE prizes, all under 1000. Judaic Studies has one. Af-Am has very few as well.

    I’m sorry if the Classics department with endowments from antiquity is going to be hurt, but it’s such a small part of Yale in terms of who gets awesome cash prizes that it’s not really a big deal.