STERN: Together and unequal

A Stern Perspective

If college is the great equalizer, then winter break is the great reminder. A reminder that our backgrounds are not the same. A perusal of my daily Facebook newsfeed revealed several friends traipsing across tropical islands and to exotic ski resorts, while others’ displayed none of this luxury. This is neither an indictment of the privileged nor of their decision to post exciting photos or excited statuses. It’s just a reality: some have and some have not.

scott_stern_headshot_peter_tianBut, of course, college isn’t the great equalizer. Inequality is endemic in colleges across the country, even ones with the resources of Yale. Yet this doesn’t stop many from referring to college as “the great equalizer.” The pioneering reformer Horace Mann first coined the phrase in 1848; in 2011, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told Americans that higher education remained the “great equalizer.” In a letter responding to Title IX complaints at Yale and other schools, the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights used the same phrase. Even in his deservedly lauded freshman address exhorting students to discuss socioeconomic class, President Salovey said, “Yale is such a great equalizer most of the time.”

But most of the time, the college experience isn’t equal. Travel pictures aside, life on campus is unfair in ways that many Yalies can’t imagine. And, while a great school, Yale does less than many think to bridge the gap.

Arriving as freshmen, many students assume that their suitemates will chip in for the futon or fridge; for some, this is a huge burden, yet they don’t want to raise the issue because of awkwardness or embarrassment.

Walking around campus, some people have nicer clothes than others. Some people have flashy cell phones and tricked-out laptops; some do not. Some people go to the nice restaurants or the absurdly pretentious clothing stores around campus, and some cannot. Leadership in prominent extracurriculars is impossible without the requisite time and energy; for those who have to work countless hours each week to pay for college or help out family back home, this is impossible. Toad’s charges money. Generally, it costs hundreds of dollars to join fraternities and sororities; asking for help can be degrading. When summer rolls around, some can afford to take prestigious unpaid internships; many cannot. Many from underprivileged backgrounds are not even aware of the resources at their disposal, and, again, asking can be humiliating.

Even upon graduation, some can exploit family connections or take time off to “find themselves.” For many, those opportunities are unthinkable. Some can take low-paying jobs in fields that they love; others are forced into better-paying jobs they hate because money is needed back home. Even with a diploma from Yale, getting a job can be hard if you don’t have the time or resources to travel for an interview or the clothes to wear once you get there. It can be embarrassing to have to bring this up, and it can certainly hurt an application.

Fifty-six percent of Yale students receive some financial aid, suggesting that their families earn less than $200,000 a year. That suggests that over 40 percent of the student body come from households making over $200,000 a year. Nationally, that number is 4 percent.

It took me years to understand the phrase “life isn’t fair.” It seemed to me that adults used that expression when they wanted me to do something for which there was no justification. Yet, over the years, I grew to understand the reality of the phrase. We can’t control the families into which we’re born, the abilities with which we’re endowed and many of the circumstances that surround our lives. To many Yalies, life seems fair. They worked hard; they got into Yale. They continue to work hard; they get good grades. Their parents may even have come from less privileged circumstances — but, through grit and determination, they made it. The system worked. Sadly, this disregards the roles played by prejudice, inertia and an incomprehensible tonnage of luck. It ignores the inequalities that undergird even a place like Yale. It places the blame for failure or difficulty on the individual, when so often it belongs on society.

This is not a column about empathy. It’s not about compassion. It’s about the ability to simply acknowledge the realities that surround us. There are forces beyond our control, and they shape our daily lives. It is demeaning to pretend that life at Yale is equal — especially when reality is written on our Facebook newsfeeds.

Scott Stern is a junior in Branford College. His columns run on Wednesdays. Contact him at scott.stern@yale.edu.

Comments