Last month, addressing hundreds of eager freshmen and their families, University President Peter Salovey gave a speech in which he criticized the troubling lack of access to higher education in the U.S.
Fifty years ago, another Yale president stood in his place and declared almost the very same thing.
In his 1964 inaugural address, former University President Kingman Brewster called for the “opening of the gates of the walled city.” Brewster was referring to the isolated nature of Yale at the time — its all-male student body, its strict adherence to tradition and its obvious lack of any kind of diversity on campus. As he kicked off his campaign to dramatically transform the University’s admissions policies, Brewster demanded an end to the “institutional chauvinism” that prevailed at universities nationwide and prevented most of America from obtaining access to education.
Over the past 60 years, Brewster’s words have indeed been taken to heart. In the last two incoming classes, roughly 40 percent of American students have identified as students of color, and nearly 50 percent of undergraduates have qualified for University financial aid. Additionally, more than half of the class of 2017 hails from public high schools.
But despite these major achievements, a noticeable gap remains between Yale’s student body and the general American public: the income gap.
In the last five years, Yale’s Admissions Office has redoubled its efforts to seek and recruit high-achieving students from low-income backgrounds, weaving together a strategic plan of coordinated outreach efforts and special recruitment programs. But while enthusiasm for low-income outreach is high, the actual effects of these efforts are yet to be seen.
BREAKING OLD HABITS
Yale historian Gaddis Smith ’54 GRD ’61 recalls the straightforwardness of admissions practices in the 1950s, when he was admitted to Yale.
“It was so easy,” Smith said, musing at how different the process was. “Private schools, prep schools, elite schools [like] Andover gave Yale an admissions list, and that was it, period. Those were the ones who were admitted.”
While the University’s admissions policies have faced sweeping changes in the last 60 years — the most prominent being the acceptance of women and the gradual racial diversification of the student body — many Americans still view Yale as an insular, exclusive institution. As a consequence, students from low-income backgrounds are put off by these perceptions and rarely think to apply.
Joseph Zolner SOM ’84, senior director of the Harvard Institutes for Higher Education, said he believes diversity is an issue that has only been seriously weighed in college admissions for the last three or four decades.
“Before that, if you were to say to someone, ‘We want a very diverse class,’ a lot of people would have said, ‘What does that mean?’” Zolner said. “And now, I think it’s just such a given. Everybody aspires to that.”
But universities are not focusing on diversity just to jump on the bandwagon.
Jennifer Delahunty, dean of admissions at Kenyon College, said she sees the trend toward diversity in higher education as representative of a larger cultural shift in the country toward inclusivity.
“Access to opportunities is a fundamental American value,” Delahunty said. “What’s happening right now with the focus in ethnic and socioeconomic diversity is really just a reflection of our larger society, which seeks to be more inclusive. Look at hiring practices — it’s part of a larger right.”
Delahunty also pointed to the SAT, a test that was originally introduced as a way for colleges to identify capable students who did not attend the private boarding schools from which universities traditionally admitted students. The “idea of identifying potential in underrepresented students goes way back,” Delahunty said.
But increasing the socioeconomic diversity of the student body is easier said than done — though it has, in fact, been said many times.
Although all college counselors, higher education experts and University administrators agreed on the importance of outreach, the specific ways of going about this outreach are more difficult to develop. Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeremiah Quinlan said the Yale Admissions Office takes a multi-pronged approach to low-income outreach and recruitment.
“We need to do several things,” Quinlan said. “We need to get these students to apply to institutions like ours. We need to do a better job of convincing them to come to Yale once they are admitted … and we need to do a better job of building up support systems at Yale, so they have a successful experience.”
NEW AND UNCHARTED TERRITORY
In recent years, several programs have been launched at the Admissions Office with the sole purpose of recruiting students from low-income backgrounds. The Student Ambassador Program sends Yale students to low-income high schools, and the fly-in program provides hundreds of admitted students with a travel stipend each year to visit campus. Additionally, admissions officers mailed out a pamphlet this summer to 16,000 low-income high school students informing them of the University’s financial aid program.
Christopher Avery, a Harvard Kennedy School of Government public policy professor, said the lack of information available to low-income students makes selective college admissions seem to be a “discouraging landscape.”
“There are a number of areas in which you need to be informed, and one of them is understanding the process of admissions and feeling comfortable applying,” Avery told the News. “Many of the students are in high schools where they stand out, and so there is no collective guidance. The research suggests that it’s just getting into the pool [that hinders them].”
Along with Stanford professor Caroline Hoxby, Avery co-authored a study on low-income students this year that made waves in the media for its striking statistics. The study found that only 34 percent of high-achieving students in the bottom fourth of national income distribution attended one of the country’s 238 most selective colleges, compared to 78 percent of high-achieving students in the highest income quartile.
Other studies have confirmed these low numbers. A July 2013 report from Georgetown University found that each year, 111,000 high-scoring African American and Hispanic students either do not attend college or do not graduate, and that more than half of these students come from the bottom half of family income distribution.
“People don’t like to think [these numbers are] a given, like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s just how it is,’ ” said Terry Kung, co-director of college counseling at Immaculate Heart High School and former assistant director of admissions at Columbia. “Most educators are working toward opportunities that would yield better results than what the reports indicate. But I think it’s yet another reminder that despite a lot of people’s good efforts, there are still a lot of roadblocks.”
At Yale in particular, one of the major roadblocks to low-income outreach is the fight against its negative perceptions. Quinlan said many students in the U.S. and internationally are unaware of the diversity of Yale’s student body.
Quinlan added that the recent mailing to 16,000 high school students was modeled directly after the research conducted by Hoxby and Avery. To select the students, the Admissions Office purchased names of students who scored high on the SAT, PSAT or ACT and used a geo-demographic system to look at postal sub-zip code numbers and figure out which students lived in traditionally low-income areas.
But this type of targeted approach also draws its criticisms. While she said any efforts to broaden socioeconomic outreach should be applauded, Kung said she has seen some adverse effects, in that high-achieving low-income students who attend prestigious high schools or do not live in low-income neighborhoods are often neglected.
“It seems like some of the pushback we’ve experienced is that schools like Yale think these kids have people to watch out for them,” Kung said. “It’s like saying, ‘We’ve found a deeper pocket of these students — you guys do something else with yours. We’ve found our new opportunity.’”
With all the trials of tailoring low-income outreach to be effective, including fighting against criticisms about drumming up application counts or ignoring certain populations in favor of others, Yale’s Admissions Office still strives to pursue students from low-income backgrounds by engaging with them on a personal level and increasing their access to information about applying.
Before retiring from his position this summer, former University President Levin told the News that he believes Yale’s student body will continue to become more diverse in future years, though that diversity will not be able to be measured by “any particular, singular metric.”
Stepping in as the new president last month, Salovey has reiterated Levin’s words. Though he said he does not know how best to counter the challenges associated with socioeconomic status and college admissions, he told the News in April that the University will be more aggressive with its outreach.
“The research shows that there is this large cohort of students out there that are not applying — I think that’s really an eye-opener and a motivator,” Quinlan said. “It sets a challenge for us. I think we can really begin to change the student body.”