Who should be admitted to Yale, and on what grounds?
Any answer to this question closely reflects our beliefs about the purpose of the College, and perhaps even the purpose of an education overall. Establishing these beliefs is important, because education policy debates often lack a critical element: acknowledgement that the various parties have wildly different beliefs on what education means, undergirded by a range of assumptions.
In my view, education is an instrumental good that fulfills at least four underlying goals: the development of productive workers, the cultivation of engaged citizens, the socialization of people from diverse backgrounds and most importantly, the mitigation of the impact of arbitrary circumstances on people’s lives.
Yale College clearly supports at least the last two of those goals, given its recent announcement of a five-week summer bridge program aimed at preparing low-income and first-generation college students for Yale life. The program covers tuition, transportation and housing fees, and includes a writing course and introduction to various campus resources like tutors and deans.
But the initiative has not been accepted with universal acclaim. Sadly, some in our community believe students with educational backgrounds that did not fully prepare them for Yale have no place in our ivory walls. But this short-sighted attitude would undermine the College’s contribution to American capitalism, Western liberal democracy and social justice, the very things Yale education is directed towards.
What does it mean to be unprepared, anyway? Far too often in contemporary America, being “unprepared” for the rigors of elite academic life is merely a function of a pernicious set of circumstances students cannot control. How educated are your parents? What color is your skin? What is the median household income of your town? These are the things that matter.
Of course, this inequality should be instinctively repulsive. As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently wrote, “Something is profoundly wrong when we can point to 2-year-olds in this country and make a plausible bet about their long-term outcomes — not based on their brains and capabilities, but on their ZIP codes.” Amen, Mr. Kristof.
After all, we treat children differently from adults in a variety of ways, because we, as a society, recognize that young children cannot yet reason or meaningfully take responsibility for their own lives. Thus, they cannot sign contracts or vote, and we generally don’t throw them in prison. This point is obvious, but too many people miss its implications — after kids become adults, why are we then fine holding them accountable for years of exposure to lead-drenched public housing and street violence, a dearth of meaningful enrichment opportunities like summer camps and the general failures of public schools in low-income districts? These facts of life were also beyond the children’s control.
It’s rather silly, then, to make claims about who “deserves” to get in to Yale. Admissions likely has little to do with the inherent greatness of the people who are offered spots, a concession we are loathe to make because it deflates our own egos.
But detractors have another argument. They claim that admitting underprepared students inherently diminishes the academic quality of the College. After all, if the administration needs to create a program to get these kids up to speed and impart analytical writing skills via an introductory English course, they must not have been as good as other applicants.
Even if that were true (which I would dispute — these kids could easily end up outperforming others over the course of their Yale careers), other factors outweigh this concern. This is why it is important to refer to our beliefs about the purpose of Yale. I would go so far as to argue that the added value from having poor, first-generation kids both attend the College and succeed here is clearly so great as to warrant some decline in average student “quality” as determined solely by academics.
If this place is really supposed to breed American leaders, it is in the country’s best interest for our graduates to be exposed to people who have intimately experienced our contemporary challenges. You can be interested in food stamps as an intellectual exercise, but sometimes it takes a good friend revealing their family’s reliance on them for you to internalize their importance and add clarity to your thinking.
At the end of the day, Yale will still be elite. But it should not be an institution only open to those who were blessed by the capricious hand of fate masquerading as meritocracy. Ensuring low-income students apply and matriculate should be our goal, and a bridge program may just give some very valuable students the necessary confidence to come here and enrich us all.
Michael Magdzik is a senior in Berkeley College. His column runs on Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .