After White House visit, Yale looks to accessibility

Peter Salovey
Photo by Maria Zepeda.

When university presidents — including University President Peter Salovey — left the White House last Thursday after a conference on access to higher education, they spoke positively about the prospects of low-income students seeking a college education.

President Obama had invited the leaders to the White House on the condition that they make specific commitments to expand access to their institutions for high achieving, low-income students. Though Yale administrators — along with experts and several of the college leaders from the 109 universities in attendance — said they were pleased with the commitments made at the White House, some added that the commitments tended to be vague and may not be enough to alter the landscape of higher education.

“I’m generally of the view that we should work toward the strategies that have the best chances of really working,” Salovey told the News last week.

While the broader theme at the White House conference was college affordability, for Yale and its peer schools, the focus is accessibility — ensuring that students from low-income families apply to Ivy League schools and are prepared for them once they arrive.

Designed by Salovey in consultation with a number of other administrative figures — including Yale College Dean Mary Miller and Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeremiah Quinlan — Yale’s commitments included the continuation of several longstanding University policies such as requiring no tuition from students whose families earn less than $65,000 per year.

“The important message to convey to prospective applicants is that once you’re admitted, you’ll be taken care of financially,” Director of Student Financial Services Caesar Storlazzi said.

But the document also describes a previously unreported proposal to develop precalculus course modules that can be made available online to incoming students. Professor Craig Wright, who is leading the University’s online education efforts, described the modules as “more education, free, online, entirely voluntary … [and] designed to provide a level playing field for all students when they arrive on campus as freshmen.”

Yale will also look to increase the number of QuestBridge finalists enrolled at the University by 50 percent, from approximately 50 to 60 students to around 75 to 80 students. QuestBridge is a program that seeks to link high-achieving low-income high school students with selective American colleges and has “demonstrated an extraordinary capability for identifying high-achieving, low-income students,” according to Quinlan.

Starting next fall, Yale will join a pre-existing partnership between Harvard, Princeton and the University of Virginia for a set of joint admissions outreach trips, focusing on areas of the country that have traditionally been underrepresented in these schools’ recent application cycles.

In comparison to those of its peers, Yale’s commitments emerging from the White House conference were highly detailed. Even a cursory examination of the word counts of each college’s commitments reveals a stark difference: 449 for Yale compared to an average of 104 for the other five participating members of the Ivy League.

In contrast to Yale, most of the University’s peer schools did not include exact figures in their commitments on how many additional resources they will allocate toward these efforts.

“It may be that some of the colleges will decide to give out more detail, but what we asked was for a fairly concise description that would make clear that in one of the four areas we were discussing, they were making new and additional commitments,” National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling said last week.

College presidents and leaders in higher education alike said although the commitments represented useful steps forward, those steps were not enough to address the overarching issue.

“There are so many good things happening, but it’s 5,000 [students] here, or a campus there,” State University of New York Chancellor Nancy Zimpher said at the White House last week, adding that the real challenge will be working together on finding a few highly effective strategies to increase access and reduce inequality.

Quinlan told the News that he is excited about the potential for Yale’s collaborative efforts with other institutions to make an impact.

“Research shows that individual institutions care, they’re devoting a lot of resources to it, but they’re not really moving the needle on an individual basis,” Quinlan said.

Focusing on a few major policy initiatives, Salovey said, would still leave room for “tailoring and fine-tuning programs to the culture of [each] campus.”

Still, in a recent article in the Yale Alumni Magazine, Quinlan said government funding is a major obstacle to solving the problem of accessibility.

“[There’s a] lack of appetite on the part of elected officials — at both the state and national level — to fund higher education,” he said.

Salovey said research on high-achieving low-income students should be carefully considered when designing any policy, either on a school-wide or national level, aimed at increasing access. He and Quinlan both pointed to research conducted by Caroline Hoxby of Stanford and Christopher Avery of the Harvard Kennedy School, which demonstrates that most high-achieving low-income students do not apply to top colleges like Yale.

“[Yale’s] problem is paradoxically its strength: Its reputation and prestige not only attracts applications but actually deters some students from applying who think it’s going to cost too much or isn’t somewhere where they belong,” David Petersam, president of Virginia-based higher education consulting group AdmissionsConsultants, told the News in November.

Quinlan said the Hoxby-Avery research demonstrates that although top universities have a genuine interest in opening their doors to academically deserving students of all incomes, no one institution has made significant progress in this regard. He added that he hopes more collaborative initiatives such as Yale’s decision to join Princeton and Harvard in traveling across the country will yield more progress in raising students’ awareness.

Sperling asked each of the universities present at the conference to follow up with the administration. He added that the administration hopes to host a second conference to assess what progress has been made in expanding access in the coming year.

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