STERN: Yale’s glass floor

A Stern Perspective

A little less than a month ago, Richard Reeves, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, published a column in the New York Times that turned some heads. “If we want a competitive economy and an open society,” he wrote, “we need the best and the brightest to succeed. This means some of the children of the affluent must fail.”

scott_stern_headshot_peter_tianReeves was writing about one of the dirty little secrets limiting social mobility: the glass floor. Unlike the oft-discussed “glass ceiling,” whereby women or minorities or other marginalized populations are unable to climb the economic ladder, the glass floor prevents those at the top of the ladder from falling below the privileged rung on which they were born. As Reeves wrote, “It is a stubborn mathematical fact that the top fifth of the income distribution can accommodate only 20 percent of the population. If we want more poor kids climbing the ladder of relative mobility, we need more rich kids sliding down the chutes.”

Rather than telling wealthy and educated parents to let their own less gifted kids fail, Reeves and other scholars attack “institutional frameworks” that hold up the glass floor.

One of these institutional frameworks is the American system of higher education. In other words, Yale.

Reading Reeves’s piece, I was repeatedly struck by how hard and durable the glass floor is at a place like Yale. It’s not just that Yale gives all of us remarkable opportunities; it’s that Yale works hard not to let us fail.

“Students at places like Cleveland State, unlike those at places like Yale, don’t have a platoon of advisers and tutors and deans to write out excuses for late work, give them extra help when they need it, pick them up when they fall down,” former Yale instructor William Deresiewicz explained in a controversial piece in The American Scholar.

If we’re having a hard time at Yale, we are told again and again that there are resources to help us out. In the case of sickness, difficulty or tragedy — get a dean’s excuse, go see a writing tutor or meet a counselor. If all else fails, talk to the professor. Many professors are more lax at places like Yale than at other schools, because they know the kids are smart and will do the work — eventually. “Extensions are available for the asking … students at places like Yale get an endless string of second chances,” wrote Deresiewicz.

From the moment we arrive on campus, Yale’s remarkable safety net kicks in. We are greeted by our FroCos, our big sibs, our masters, our deans. If you need time off, Yale is there for you too. Every couple years someone writes a column in a Yale publication entitled, “Time away provides perspective” or “Knowing Yale’s right, but perhaps not right now.” It is not nearly so easy to take a break — to obtain a leave of absence with practically guaranteed readmission — at most other schools. (It appears this may not be true for withdrawals from Yale for mental health reasons, but, while bizarre and troubling, this is the exception and not the rule.)

For the record: This safety net is great. It is amazing. It is what makes Yale one of the best schools in the world.

In pointing out that failure is difficult at Yale, I am not advocating that we let more people fail, that we diminish these remarkable resources. Rather, I am advocating that, so long as this glass floor exists, we must make it accessible to more than just the elite.

To start, Yale should eliminate policies such as giving legacy preference, which serve to help propagate social and economic immobility. Legacy gives an advantage to those who need it the least, and it prevents less privileged applicants from gaining access that would mean much more to them. A 2011 study from Princeton found that students from privileged backgrounds who attended second-tier schools did just as well later in life as similar students who attended elite schools. For minority and low-income students, though, attending elite schools made a significant difference.

We should also address the deficiencies in Yale’s recruitment of these outstanding low-income students. As Caroline Hoxby, an economist at Stanford calculated, 70 percent of low-income students at elite colleges are from just 15 large metropolitan areas. Yale needs to expand its recruitment of low-income and first-generation students in general, particularly in areas that usually don’t receive ample attention or resources.

For better or for worse, a degree from Yale or other elite institutions leads to unparalleled opportunities. As long as Yale provides such an extraordinary safety net, we should make sure it’s there to catch the most deserving students possible.

Scott Stern is a junior in Branford College. Contact him at scott.stern@yale.edu.

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