Josh, a Yale sophomore on full financial aid, said that his suitemates last year — whom he described as “sons of rich businessmen” — often took money for granted. He recalled one experience vividly. He was moving out at the end of the year when he heard one of his suitemates’ parents tell their son not to worry about packing up. They would have the staff at the hotel at which they were staying box up his belongings for him.
“I was astounded. I didn’t even know hotel staff could do that,” he said. “If it had been my family, we would have boxed up my things and driven home, but that’s just how they did things.”
For Josh, class pervades his Yale experience. When he sees someone wearing an expensive outfit or flying to Europe for winter break, he said, he often wonders what his life would be like if he had similar opportunities.
“It’s interesting because [class] is not really in your face, yet you still think about it pretty often,” he added. “I’m glad it’s not overt, but at the same time, the gap does exist.”
Yale prides itself on its generous financial aid packages: The average financial aid budget is $109 million, the average amount of scholarship money given per student on aid is $35,400 and nearly 750 students are expected to attend Yale without a family contribution. There are reasons that Yale’s institutional structures ensure socioeconomic issues stay far from the forefront of students’ minds: All on-campus housing costs the same, students eat at the same dining halls and many of the social events and parties are free of charge. But there are small incidents — Family Weekend, birthday dinners, shopping trips and summer plans — that reveal class differences between students.
The income gap among Yale students became the subject of debate last spring, when the University announced a change in its financial aid package for the 2010-’11 school year. This change entailed a $400 increase in the student “self-help” portion of the aid package, from $2,600 to $3,000.
The self-help portion is an allotment for books and personal expenses factored into every student’s financial aid package. This can be covered by scholarships, a term-time job or increased contributions from parents.
“Students aren’t charged this $3,000,” said Caesar Storlazzi, director of Student Financial Services and chief financial aid officer. It never appears on a bill. “Essentially, it’s your week-by-week books or personal expenses allowance. Students will work and earn that $3,000. If they have a job, they will keep that money and use it for their personal expenses. We don’t bill you for that, but it’s part of the expense of going to Yale.”
Storlazzi told the News in an April 22 article titled “Self help increase protested” that the increase to the self-help portion would amount to only one more hour a week of work for each student. Although one hour seems relatively small in comparison to the amount of time students spend in class or extracurricular activities, the widespread and vocal opposition to the increase was largely symbolic.
THE CLASS SPECTRE
Aside from flare-ups like the controversy over the change in self-help contribution, class affects students’ lives in far more subtle ways. Money largely affects Yale students on small scales and in personal interactions. But these events can hold much larger significance.
When Adam, a Yale freshman, invited people out for his birthday dinner, he assumed his suitemates would want to attend. His friends dressed in fancy clothes to go to an upscale restaurant. He did not even think to worry about the prices on the menu. But when some of his friends declined to join in the celebration, he realized that he might have made a mistake.
“Some members of our group decided not to join us because they didn’t want to pitch in to pay for dinner,” he said. “Obviously no one would’ve suggested to go to a relatively expensive restaurant if we thought we might exclude some of our friends.”
Nikki Endsley ’13 said she first realized how different Yale was from her home in Texas on the first day of her freshman year when one of her suitemates asked her to contribute money to buying furniture for their suite. Endsley did not feel comfortable explaining that she couldn’t afford to.
“I’d never been in a situation where I had to defend my monetary situation to anybody before,” she said. “It was really awkward, and I basically just avoided the issue for some time.”
Eventually, she continued, her suitemate approached her about not paying for suite furnishings. Endsley did not understand how the issue had become so important, especially because she had offered to contribute to the suite in other ways, such as by painting pictures or designing posters for their common room.
“I’m ashamed to say that I was ashamed of my class, and when she confronted me, I apologized for my lack of contribution,” she said. “It’s a difficult situation because it’s hard to explain that there is nothing you can tangibly do, especially if you’ve never lived with other people before.”
Though experiences like Endsley’s can occur at any institution that joins people from different backgrounds in a single space, the dynamic of interaction between classes at elite universities is not very well-documented. Amy Jones ’09 was struck by the impact of socioeconomic status on student life during her time at Yale. In light of the silence surrounding the issue, she wrote her senior essay about the experience of low-income students at Yale and other elite universities.
“I’m from West Virginia, and of course, my life was so different there than it was at Yale,” she said. “For a couple of years, I wondered how some people go through the [college transition] process with so much ease.”
In her essay, Jones describes how low-income students conceal their identities to avoid the stigma associated with appearing to be from a lower class. But she stresses the difficulty of truly hiding one’s socioeconomic background in an environment like Yale’s. The feeling of difference can be pervasive.
She described being fascinated by general theory in sociology, psychology and history that addressed stigma and a feeling of difference.
“It’s not so much what you’re doing that is so different,” she said, “but it’s that you’re in a new situation, a new world and you have to figure out a new way of being.”
She said class differences become more pronounced when people start looking for jobs or summer internships. Richer students tend to have more connections to people in high-profile jobs, such as investment banking and consulting, she explained, while poorer students sometimes struggle to find these opportunities.
“Sometimes, you kind of wonder how people know what to do or how to get involved,” Jones said.
Yale lecturer Allyson McCabe became interested in class at Yale in after teaching several sections of English 114 on critical issues in higher education. She is currently on leave from Yale to work on a project exploring the ways in which socioeconomic differences affect students’ lives and has been talking to lower-income students about their experiences at elite universities. Eventually, she said she hopes to publish her findings in a long-form magazine article or book.
“Three quarters of admitted students to elite universities are from the top income quartile, and less than 10 percent come from the bottom two quartiles combined,” she said. “I want to think about what these numbers actually mean in the day-to-day lives of students.”
She praises elite universities for increasing financial aid awards and changing the content of packages from loans to grants, but she stresses that this is not a complete solution. It is rather only one step among many, she said, that should be taken to make lower-income students feel more comfortable.
“I think a lot of people assume that the barrier for these students is 100 percent financial,” she said. “But there is a lot of other stuff going on that has to do with how people relate to each other based on similar experiences.”
OLD BLUE, OLD GREEN
Gaddis Smith ’54 GRD ’61, a Yale professor with an interest in the university’s history, explained that Yale has undergone several revisions to its approach to socioeconomic diversity. In fact, in the early 20th century, he said, Yale’s tuition was “fairly low” — around $7,000 in 2010 dollars — a price many people could pay. Financial aid became much more prevalent after the World War I, but it was first applied in a way Smith described as unfair.
“Frankly, financial aid was applied with a great deal of prejudice,” he said. “For instance, there was a strong anti-Jewish prejudice … as most aid went to Christians.”
Yale changed its financial policies again after World War II, Smith said, when the GI Bill paid veterans’ college tuition in addition to providing a monthly stipend. But this government aid was short-lived, he added, and by 1950, only 1 in 4 Yale students was afforded financial aid.
Finally, in 1964, University President Kingman Brewster ’41 established Yale’s need-blind admission policy, through which admissions officers evaluated students’ applications without knowledge of their financial status. Smith added that the worry for Yale now, however, is that the University may be crowding out the middle class.
“Now we’re really just talking about class almost entirely in dollar terms rather than any social terms,” he said. “Class has become really just economic, not socioeconomic.”
Jay Gitlin ’71 MUS ’74 GRD ’02, a Yale professor who is also interested Yale’s history, said that while financial aid has made a large difference, class prejudices still exist at Yale and at other elite universities.
“For all our sensitivity, there is a not-so-latent inclination to look down on blue-collar America,” he said via email. “I’m not convinced we do better on this score now than we did back in the days of Old Yale.”
For Smith, the largest difference between Old Yale and new is that there are far more very affluent families now, and there is a greater gap between the rich and the poor. In the early 20th century, he said, there were a few very rich families — Rockefeller, Carnegie, Mellon — but now there are an “extraordinary number of enormously wealthy people.” He added that Yale has benefitted from this influx of wealth in the form of donations to the University.
“The one thing that correlates with academic qualification and achievements more than anything else is the wealth of one’s family,” he said. “I find this reality very discouraging.”
STUCK IN THE MIDDLE
Socioeconomic status doesn’t only have an impact on history or the lives of students at the extremes. Moments of class consciousness are common even among students who consider themselves middle class.
“There’s a lot of surprising wealth at Yale,” said Max Saltarelli ’13. “People have surprising connections, like relations to ambassadors or other important people.”
He was surprised by the way people he knew presented their wealth.
“I admire and like the wealthy people I know, independently of and because of the things they do with their money,” he said. “But money’s hard to talk about, because it’s secret. I feel silly even talking about wealth.”
Sophomore Travis Trew mentioned that it’s hard to tell who is from what background at Yale, because some of the markers that separated social classes at his high school, like designer clothes or cars, either are not ostentatious or do not apply to the college setting. He said he looks for other signs of status.
“I know some groups of people who all went to private school,” he said. “That’s not to say that they’re snobs — that couldn’t be further from the truth. They’re just drawn to people that they have things in common with.”
He added that in his experience, these people aren’t exclusive and economic similarity isn’t the only factor that determines their friendships.
Some students have difficulty positioning themselves in Yale’s unusual economic environment. Saltarelli and Trew stated that they consider themselves upper-middle class on a national scale, but middle class at Yale. Ten of 15 students interviewed felt a similar discrepancy between their socioeconomic status at Yale and at home.
In her senior essay, Jones wrote that economic disparities often manifest themselves in institutional culture.
According to Jones’ essay, certain habits — such as reading the New York Times or the New Yorker — are considered normal at Yale, but lower-income students may initially find these practices alienating.
“It is a different world with different modes of talking and being,” Jones said. “There are different things you are expected to know and do when you get into the world at Yale. You are not exactly told what things are expected upon arrival.”
Raffi Greenberg ’12 noticed the particularity of Yale culture when he spent the summer abroad with students from the University of Arizona. He observed that Yale culture tends to be more elite, well-connected and focused on etiquette than other places. He also mentioned attitudes that he has developed because they are common or useful at Yale.
“For example,” Greenberg said, “when [students from University of Arizona] said they were from a city besides New York, you couldn’t just assume without asking that they really meant that city’s richest suburb.”
THE PROBLEM WITH NO NAME
Although class does affect students’ lives at Yale, the administration tries to lessen money’s impact. For instance, masters try to subsidize the cost of college-wide events so that as many people as possible can participate, said Jonathan Holloway ’91 GRD ’95, chairman of the Council of Masters and master of Calhoun College. Additionally, if students are in some sort of financial bind — if they cannot buy a winter coat, or if they have a dental emergency — their residential college will help them out, he added.
However, masters, deans and freshman counselors are not given information about students’ socioeconomic standing. Administrators and FroCos can only assist a student with financial trouble if the student approaches them with the situation. The master of a college can also help a student turn to the financial aid office for more assistance.
Nevertheless, Holloway added that socioeconomic differences likely impact students through experiences that are not directly involved with Yale as an institution, such as when students cannot afford a birthday outing to a restaurant. Yale does the best it can to help students cope with these types of expenses, though, said Dean of Student Affairs Marichal Gentry, by providing funding and access to student jobs.
Gentry added that the impact of socioeconomic diversity is a “difficult issue to address,” but staff and freshman counselors are trained to help students of different backgrounds.
Though the discomfort surrounding socioeconomic issues at Yale is not a constant pressure, it is neither out of sight nor out of mind. Its impact can be seen in snapshots of student life — winter coats, summer internships, extracurricular activities and off-hand references.
Entry into the culture of Yale is easier for some students than others. Yale can be an extension of former lives and upbringings. But for some, Yale continues to be a suspension of reality accessed only by an often indecipherable code.
“I feel a bit estranged from the University because I know this is not the way the world works,” said one student on full financial aid. “Very few people can pretend that money doesn’t exist.”