LARSON: Education’s 1 percent

Nothing in Particular

We’re often exhorted to remember just how fortunate we are to be at Yale. Yale offers its undergraduates a level of academic and cultural opportunity available at few other colleges. Our libraries have far more books and our theaters more plays than can be read or seen.

Harry Larson_headshot_(David Yu)But while it would be difficult to overestimate the aesthetic and intellectual opportunities available to us as undergraduates, the material benefits we receive are similarly huge, if often less openly touted. The most obvious of these are Yale’s generous financial aid policies, though we also benefit from plentiful student job opportunities, a high on-campus minimum wage, subsidies for international travel, residential college and class excursions to New York, among other things.

Yale’s largest gift to us is our degree, or, more accurately, the enhanced earnings, increased security and expanded freedom that our degrees carry. One often doesn’t realize until senior year the sheer power the Yale name commands in a still largely depressed job market.

That power helps catapult many Yale students into an elite class whose wealth and incomes are growing much faster than those of the larger American population. And that reality makes us a part of the national conversation on social equity.

Many Yale students going into business, research or pre-law jobs can expect to immediately — and by themselves — make significantly more than the U.S. median household income of slightly over $50,000 a year. Even Yalies pursuing traditionally less lucrative careers in journalism, the arts and the social sector can expect better compensation and a higher probability of employment than those without a Yale degree. Many employers trust our ability to learn relevant skills on the job, which allows Yalies to make academic decisions like choice of major without much regard to future employment prospects.

Indeed, I’ve been amazed to hear just how different — and more difficult — the job search can be for students from other elite universities. Employers will out-bid each other for the privilege of interviewing Yalies on-campus and pay for us to travel for second-round interviews. Straight-A students at many schools often have to travel at their own expense for a first-round interview.

The structural advantages Yalies hold in their job searches are not shared across all elite universities or even all Ivies. Rather, the status Yale holds (often explicitly) as a target school for top employers is shared by an exceptionally small number of schools. While I have no idea whether or not this is the case, it would be interesting to see empirical work on whether the increasing concentration of wealth and income among the top 1 and even 0.1 percent is correlated with increased opportunities for graduates of the top-top (as opposed to just top) schools.

I do not know whether, from an employer’s perspective, the respect afforded the Yale name is totally deserved. It may be that Yale teaches us valuable skills and ways of thinking. More likely, employers know that Yalies are high achievers, so our degree signals our productive capacity. It is also undoubtedly the case that because former Yale graduates were employed in elite positions and institutions, current Yale students benefit from established networks and connections, irrespective of objective measures of ability.

Regardless of the reasons behind it, the Yale degree clearly increases opportunities and compensation for employment. It is therefore our responsibility to examine how Yale’s decisions impact this country’s increasing concentration of income and opportunity at the very top.

When it comes to expanding access to the opportunities Yale offers, our generous financial aid policies are clear steps in the right direction — as are increasing efforts to reach out to people who traditionally do not consider applying to Yale. Such efforts must be redoubled at the same time as regressive policies, such as legacy preference, are re-evaluated and likely eliminated.

But steps like these are insufficient. Given the immigration and natural growth that’s occurred in this country since our parents went to school, top universities must attempt to keep their enrollment at least at pace with the country’s population growth. Admissions officers at most top colleges acknowledge that there are far more qualified applicants than there are spots for students. The current reality of increasingly low admission rates at top colleges — coupled with increasing benefits for the few who get in — is fundamentally unjust. Yale, with its new residential colleges, is taking a step in the right direction. And others should follow its lead.

Harry Larson is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at harry.larson@yale.edu.

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