LARSON: For a communal contribution

Nothing in Particular

Recent pieces in the News have sparked a long overdue conversation on the role of class and pre-college academic preparation in determining a student’s Yale experience. Such issues require charting a delicate balance.

On the one hand, we wish to maintain uniform academic standards, in admissions and in classes. On the other, we hope that a student’s success here is determined by her own drive, ability and future promise, and not by the time and money her parents were able to invest in her education.

But while Yale could certainly take further steps to ensure that economic disparity doesn’t undermine a student’s academic and social experience, Yale can’t correct for every external factor. At a certain point, Yale runs up against a larger, unequal world. Until that world changes, a far larger proportion of our student body will come from the top income quartile than the bottom.

Given limits to Yale’s capacity to make up for inequities beyond its control, we should at least ensure that Yale isn’t actively contributing to those inequities. Our need-based financial aid system is among the most generous in the world; it enables every qualified applicant, regardless of family background, to study at Yale. Still, mandatory self-help and student income contributions create an unfair and unnecessary division in the student body.

The $3200 self-help portion of a student’s financial aid package is supposed to come from term-time student jobs. A further $2900 student income contribution is expected to come from a summer job. Especially given Yale’s generous minimum wage and the abundance of student jobs, neither contribution is hugely onerous. Moreover, a part of Yale’s calculation of financial need covers “personal expenses,” which most of us would agree that Yale has no real obligation to finance.

Still, travel expenses and textbooks are less optional. And while working a student job is hardly incompatible with a successful (or fun) Yale career — many of us hold a student job at some point — it can’t always be realistically combined with some of the paths which Yale claims are open to every student. A large part of the Yale experience now takes place outside the classroom, and whether one is rehearsing for three plays simultaneously or editing articles every weeknight for the News, some activities are barely compatible with four classes, let alone a student job.

The same can be said of the summer contribution; Yale encourages its students to look at non-paying summer options in the arts, government, and academic research, while at the same time requiring certain students to use those summers to fund their Yale career.

One could fairly ask why such tradeoffs are Yale’s problem. After all, some students who can count on parental support after college might be more likely to pursue low or even non-paying career options. At what point should Yale stop being held responsible for the varied ability of its students to pursue different options?

If Yale were simply a place where we took classes, requiring that students work a few extra hours each week wouldn’t be a problem; however, so long as Yale markets itself in terms of a culture of extracurricular activities and, to a lesser degree, summer internships or study opportunities, it has a responsibility to ensure that all students can pursue those options.

But the financial questions remain. At a Monday night forum, University President-elect Peter Salovey said that the cost of eliminating student contributions would be prohibitively high. I’m skeptical of such a claim, both because the increase in financial aid would be far less expansive than previous increases, and also because Yale funds so much of the student contribution anyways, through paying students an above-market wage in far more jobs than it probably needs to provide.

So the change would cost money, and it would also increase Yale’s generosity to students — requiring that they give less and less back to the university. Many argue that requiring students to partly fund their education is a fair demand — one that asks students to give back a little to an institution that gives them so much more.

It’s a perfectly fair point, but one that’s true for affluent students at well. It might be good policy for Yale to require its students give back to the university, but then it’s good policy for Yale to ask that of all its students. If every student worked some number of hours for Yale unpaid, Yale might be able to realize savings while creating an ethos of collective contribution.

Such a policy wouldn’t eliminate inequality at Yale, but at the very least, Yale could stop creating it.

Harry Larson is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at harry.larson@yale.edu .

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