Details of prizes cap still evolving

The University’s move to cap most student prizes at $1,000 has sparked opposition from some faculty and students who argue that the policy deprives students dependent on the funds to finance creative or academic activities outside of Yale. And while administrators say the cap is just another means of expanding financial aid for needy students, they are still unsure how to execute the change.

Over the decades, Yale and its peers have increasingly favored giving students need-based aid rather than merit scholarships, and the new policy announced to department chairs this month — which will funnel prize money in excess of $1,000 toward financial aid for prizewinners who qualify — will help more students pay for their Yale educations, administrators said.

In effect, prizewinners each receive up to $1,000, and Yale keeps the rest. The excess income from prize endowments will be earmarked for prizewinners’ existing financial aid, freeing up funds in the general financial aid budget for Yale’s other expenses.

Chief among the concerns of students and faculty who oppose the move is that a large majority of the prizes must be awarded to seniors, for whom it would be too late to benefit from financial aid. Yale will keep the excess prize funds if prizewinners are not on financial aid, reserving the excess income for future awards.

The cap is especially hard on outstanding students who plan to forgo well-paying career paths to pursue the arts or take jobs in academia, critics argue.

“For graduating seniors, and really for any humanities majors, prize money makes possible certain ventures, creative or otherwise, that simple tuition defrayal would not,” said Jordan Jacks ’09, who won three prizes for fiction and poetry from the English department as an undergraduate.

Administrators are facing not only the objections of some members of the Yale community, but also the logistical challenge of putting the policy into effect by the time the prizes are awarded this spring. Every prize is being reviewed individually to determine if the donation agreements will allow for a redistribution of funds, Provost Peter Salovey said.

Since every gift is different, individual donors may have specified that excess funds should be used for purposes other than financial aid, Vice President and Secretary Linda Lorimer said, citing as an example the Charles Washburn Clark Prize, which the Political Science department awards every year for a senior essay on political philosophy or theory. Under the terms of the Clark agreement, she said, the department must award precisely $100 each year, with the excess income given to Sterling Memorial Library.

“No generalization can be made about how we would award the funding from these,” Lorimer said. “It’s too early to tell how many will go back into financial aid.”

Complicating their job is the fact that many of the prizes must be given to seniors, whether to reward them for outstanding senior essays, athletic achievement or leadership. And, like these graduating seniors, even younger prizewinners may not qualify for need-based financial aid. Lorimer said administrators may make exceptions to the $1,000 cap for senior prizes, allowing them to be set higher.

But both she and Salovey said they have many questions to resolve.

“I’m afraid these details have not yet been worked out,” Salovey said.

What administrators do know is that if they are able to pay for prizewinners’ financial aid by siphoning off prize funds in excess of $1,000, they will be free to shift money from the general financial aid budget to other University expenses, he said. In other words, the excess prize funds will replace, not supplement, winners’ financial aid awards.

Administrators said they see the plan as another way to protect Yale’s financial aid program from the endowment’s 24.6 percent decline and the budget cuts that have followed. Since the extra prize money is still funding prizewinners’ financial aid packages, Lorimer said, donors’ prizes are still supporting the excellence of Yale students.

But regardless of whether a prizewinner receives financial aid, prize money provides students with a way to fund activities that normal financial aid or even fellowships would not, past prizewinners argued.

Jacks won the Albert Stanburrough Cook Prize for poetry in his junior year, which helped him defray the cost of taking an unpaid internship at a New York publishing house the summer afterward. Neither his financial aid package, which he was not eligible for until his senior year, nor Yale’s fellowships, which usually carry specific requirements, would have helped, he said.

After Jacks graduated, his Gordon Barber Memorial Prize for poetry and the Elmore A. Willets Prize for Fiction, both worth well over $1,000, paid for several post-graduation activities, including traveling to Norfolk, Conn., to be a resident poet at the Norfolk New Music Workshop.

Similarly, five other prizewinners interviewed said their prizes had allowed them to take unpaid internships over the summer, go to graduate school for less or pay for summer classes.

Still, Jacks and the other prizewinners said they recognized that $1,000 was still a generous sum.

“I’m not about to look this gift horse in the mouth,” Jacks said.

The chair of the English department’s prizes committee, Leslie Brisman, said he believed cutting funds from upperclassman prizes would violate donors’ intentions. Prizes such as the Willets, which generated income of $20,750 last spring, or the $10,200 Sholom and Marcia Herson Scholarship for seniors intending to do graduate work in English could be vital for seniors choosing to pursue careers in writing or academia, he said.

But Salovey said the cap was designed to distribute Yale’s generosity more fairly.

“If you have $10,000, wouldn’t you rather give 10 students $1,000 than one student $10,000?” he said. “There are many deserving students at Yale.”

While the Provost’s Office is handling most of the prizes, Yale College Dean Mary Miller is in charge of setting the amounts given out for the so-called “high stand” prizes, which are awarded on Class Day to graduating seniors for excellence in academics, the arts or leadership. The Louis Sudler Prize, for instance, is awarded to seniors in the performing or creative arts. These awards will be decreased but kept above $1,000.

Miller said these prestigious prizes are not meant to support their winners’ future careers.

“High stand prizes are an honor,” she said. “They are not in any way a down payment on the future.”

Salovey, Miller, Lorimer and other proponents of the policy are simply working within the framework established in the 1950s, when elite colleges began to favor need-based aid over merit scholarships, said Skidmore College economics professor Sandy Baum, who serves as a financial aid policy analyst for the College Board.

That may be, but Yale should protect its financial aid without denying students prize money, said Andrew Williamson ’09, a Herson prizewinner last year.

“Need-based aid should always take precedence over merit-based aid as a general rule,” Williamson said in an e-mail, “but if the financial aid budget has a shortfall, the administration could at least begin by recovering money from those who have more, such as the highly-paid administrators in the University’s corporate superstructure, rather than from those who have less, such as graduating, 22-year-old English majors.”

The new policy applies to prizes in the Graduate School and professional schools as well as Yale College, though Lorimer said the cap for Graduate School prizes may be higher than $1,000.

Nora Caplan-Bricker contributed reporting.


  • Recent Alum

    When I was an undergraduate, I knew classmates who received well over $20,000 a year in financial aid scholarships. That’s more than $80,000 [!!] over four years. The prizes (before the cap) are more than reasonable by comparison, especially given that they are granted based on merit and many are incredibly hard to get. This is yet another example of Yale taking away from the deserving for ideological reasons. (Of course whether the prizes are reasonable is not the key issue — even if the prizes were overly generous by any reasonable standard, if Yale accepted the initial donation, the donors’ intent should still be upheld.)

  • Recent Alum

    “Debate comes down to question of who needs the money most.”

    How about debating who *deserves* the money the most?

  • Captain Obvious

    Breaking: Students who won $1,000+ prizes don’t think prize amounts should be decreased!

    Maybe tomorrow’s lead article should be about corporate bonuses–I’m sure Dimon and Blankfein, along most of Yale’s econ majors, would be willing to give insightful quotes about the injustice of capping bonuses.

  • Anon.

    “If you have $10,000, wouldn’t you rather give 10 students $1,000 than one student $10,000?” he [Salovey] said. “There are many deserving students at Yale.” I suppose this makes sense if you believe that everyone at Yale, no matter how hard they work or how talented they are, is equal. But then, by this logic, Yale should transform itself into an online correspondence university rather than an elite ivy league institution because this would allow as many people as possible to benefit as possible from its resources. Not only is the very idea of Yale premised on the idea that some people are more exceptional than others but leveling the playing field financially is the job of financial aid and not merit awards. Confusing the two sets a dangerous precedent. We need to remember that those are two very different things. In a world of grade inflation and the false sense that everyone at Yale does outstanding work, wouldn’t it be nice if once in while we could recognize outstanding accomplishments rather than pretend that everyone is doing an outstanding job?

  • Faculty

    The total amounts here from the University’s viewpoint are trivial. This is not about saving money, it is about centralizing and controlling decisions at the top. God forbid that a department or chair have a dollar to allocate for the best interests of their department — the only people at Yale allowed to make decisions have the title of “vice president” (and there are a lot of them, so they can do a lot of deciding).

  • sudler fund

    does not bode well for sudler-funded arts activities, awards of which can be up to $1200. would you cut those funds to apply it to the student’s financial aid package? good luck seeing any theater, dance, video, etc. on campus when that happens.

  • Come one

    Yale is laying off people, programs are drying up, and yet there is such defense for giving far too much money in the form of merit awards. Who here thinks they wrote a paper, or performed a project that is worth limiting another student’s potential (or perhaps even keeping them from attending Yale) and then on top of that, $10,000. Let your paper, the academic merit, and the prestige from submitting it to journals, etc be its own reward. If you need so much money for your work, academia may be the wrong field.

  • ’10

    Indeed. Admin taking away oversight from departments, and Yale making a moneygrab. Why should prizes go toward a winning student’s financial aid? That is aid they would be getting anyway, so the prize is really going to……the university coffers. What a shady shell-game.

  • super

    Prizes can be looked at in a number of ways.

    A student who wins a prize for Latin might reasonably be rewarded with the opportunity to travel to Rome to read inscriptions in situ for a month or two, a trip that would certainly run over $1000.

    And: Some of the better endowed graduate departments regularly provide internal summer fellowships in the amount of several thousand dollars to many students each year. These fellowships are endowed and were easily gotten (at least before the downturn) by grad students with a one-page research plan and a budget. We chose Yale in part because easy money would be available to buy time and space to study.

    Now I’m sure anecdotes about big-time prize winners dropping their cash on handbags leaves a bad taste in the mouth, but I’d guess that most kids are investing their well-earned rewards in some sort of worthy interest, which at that stage of life could certainly mean living in Paris over the summer or some such thing.

    Finally, #5 is exactly correct and undergrads should fight hard to preserve Yale’s quirky nuances while still encouraging the egalitarian advances of the last couple of decades.

  • Y ’01

    How much are the Sudler Prizes worth? Why is the administration allowed to keep its prizes large while restricting departmental ones?

  • ’13

    #5 is certainly right. I don’t have any inside information, but the number of prizes with annual awards over $1000 is probably quite small. With even fewer at the ‘excessive’ $10,000 mark, the money to be ‘saved’ by capping prizes at $1000 could only amount to a few hundred thousand dollars a year, if that; and even if it were a million dollars or more, it’s hardly going to change Yale’s financial landscape. Aside from the terrible restriction this move will impose upon exceptional undergraduates’ opportunities for travel, internships, book and materials, etc., it seems that going after the income of a small number of endowed funds is not the most obvious way of plugging the budget hole.

    A number of people have mentioned to me that the central administration has been after the endowed funds since time immemorial. This seems like a reasonable assumption to make, and I therefore suspect that the proposed cap on prizes is just the start of a wider scheme to wrench autonomy from departments and donors in general and concentrate financial power in the hands of a few administrators. These administrators may have done much good for Yale in the past, but at present they seem to have forgotten that they are not the only members of the wider Yale community qualified to determine how money ought to be spent. Donors in particular need to feel the security of knowing that their donations are being used only in accordance with their wishes, and that fact that somebody makes a substantial bequest to one area of the university in the hope of improving circumstances there does not mean that central funding to the same should be cut in response. And yet this is exactly what is proposed: when prize money goes to financial aid and money for financial aid goes to centralized expenses, the effect of the donor’s donation in the department to which it was made is greatly diminished. One might as well have just given the money straight to the administration. Is this what any donor who made a bequest for a prize in some specific subject area actually intended?

  • observer

    Central administrative power has undermined academia in universities elsewhere, transforming many intellectual institutions into cut-price service research bureaux for commerce and industry. I can see Yale going the same way. It may not be bad under Levin and Salovey, but what happens when the reins are passed?

  • skeptic

    Bah on all prizes… College is not a kiddie birthday party where one plays pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. Grow up do the right thing for its own sake, not for “recognition” or misplaced adulation.


    Did anyone notice this?!?!?!?!?!

    “What administrators do know is that if they are able to pay for prizewinners’ financial aid by siphoning off prize funds in excess of $1,000, they will be free to shift money from the general financial aid budget to other University expenses, he said. In other words, the excess prize funds will replace, not supplement, winners’ financial aid awards.”

    the financial aid will NOT supplement what the student is getting (and hence ease his loans), but INSTEAD it will REPLACE the money that the university is spending on his financial aid. Thus, the university is just subsidizing the current financial aid system by grabbing prize money, but IT IS NOT ACTUALLY ADDING TO FINANCIAL AID.


    Students are NOT benefitting. The money is transitively just entering into Yale’s general fund. Bring on the donor lawsuits.

    This is and OBVIOUS violation of every single donor’s intent.

    Sue away.

  • ’13

    As the endowment has fallen dramatically, and as everywhere around the country workers who would otherwise be well into their careers are laid off, God forbid that any of us feel any impact of the global financial crisis. These decisions made by the administration are quite emasculating. I’m sure that the 14.9 million unemployed Americans would agree that Yale students are entitled to these exorbitant sums for their work.

    There is a point at which we should count our blessings instead.

  • Rudy ’73

    The donors of the prize endowments made Yale the trustee of the funds. The donors made a decision to reserve funds to make awards based on merit. The university, long after agreeing to take and manage the money for those purposes, now says those purposes are wrong, that ALL monetary grants or awards (except maybe $1,000 per prize) should be passed out based on need. Now the trustee decides that its priorities for the money are better than the donors’ and as trustee appropriates the “extra” for its own priorities. In most legal circles that would be called self-serving, conflict of interest or breach of fiduciary duty. The fact that there may not be any survivors of the donors who know or care enough about this money grab doesn’t make it less outrageous.