It is 1957, and freshmen are sweating for reasons other than the perpetual nervous energy particular to first year students at Yale. They’re in Commons, and they’re working hard. Busing dishes, washing them and sweeping are all components of their jobs. These students are “self-supported.” This essentially means that they spend their mealtimes cleaning up after their classmates instead of socializing with them. These students work 12 hours a week, and they comprise 30 percent of Yale’s undergraduate population.
Today, 57 years later, students face similar policies. In 2014, the Provost’s Office created a new work-study policy that echoes many of the marked class difference of Old Yale. Before this, the office paid 50 percent of every student worker’s salary. This year, in order to offset the endowment’s deficit, the office will only give the salary split to students on financial aid — and only for salaries of $15 an hour and below.
In theory, of course, employers are still free to hire students not on financial aid and at wages of over $15 an hour. But if they do, they will lose at least $7.50 an hour per person. In both cases, many people working on campus do so because they have no other options.
In turn, these workers have student income contributions to meet. This is the tuition percentage the financial aid office requires them to earn during the school year. Without being able to earn more than $15 an hour, effectively a sort of maximum wage, some students have either had to take on multiple jobs or, for lack of time, take out more loans, in order to meet 100 percent of their own demonstrated need.
Tyler Blackmon ’16, a staff columnist for the Yale Daily News, is one such worker. When he sits down with me for coffee, he is out of breath from running. He tells me he didn’t want be late, making him arguably the most earnest person I’ve ever had the privilege to interview. He has enormous eyes and an equally enormous capacity for articulating his views. Needless to say, when he found out about this policy late last year, he wrote an article condemning the effects it would have on low-income students.
Blackmon grew up on a ranch and comes from a low-income family. He has been on work-study since his freshman year. Back then, it was still relatively easy for him to earn all of his required student contribution. But as his Yale career has advanced, this component of his financial aid package has become more of a burden.
“One thing that is particularly troubling is that whenever you go from being a freshman to a sophomore, the work expectation skyrockets,” he said. “The University promises incoming freshmen these star-studded financial aid packages, and then the next year they hit you with something that’s not so great.”
This year, his student income contribution has increased again. Blackmon works for the School of Medicine’s web group and was due for a raise to $16 an hour. However, because of the change in work-study policy, he did not receive this raise — his boss, he said, wasn’t keen on spending what would have come to an extra $8.50 an hour. He has had to take out more loans.
“My schedule is saturated. I didn’t have more time to work. I didn’t have loans freshman year, I had a few sophomore year and this year I’ve taken on a few more,” he explained.
He went on to say that if he hadn’t been working since freshman year, he would have participated in more extracurricular activities. Taken more classes. Gotten more out of his College Experience.
Molly Mullen ’17 expressed a similar idea. “The things we do outside of class are so important to Yale students, and everybody wishes they could do more of them. I think it’s limiting for some people to have another six hours of their week or more already taken away because they still need to pay for their tuition. I think it’s a class issue,” she said.
Mullen works five hours a week in a geology lab, even though her financial aid package this year indicates that she should work 10.
“My parents are paying more than they’re technically supposed to. They wanted me to join clubs and spend time doing, you know, college things.”
Laura Kellman ’15, a board member and former staffer at the Women’s Center, shares a different perspective. She’s employed but not on financial aid.
“If this policy had been implemented last year, I would never have been hired. It’s been a really important part of my Yale experience and community,” she said.
She’s only able to continue working this year because board decisions were made before the policy came out last semester. Otherwise, she thinks she would have been cut.
In part because of this, Kellman feels that the policy isn’t just detrimental to low-income work-study students: It hurts the entire community.
“It’s a bad thing when a certain group of people is working 13 hours a week because they have to, and for another group of people, working doesn’t even cross their mind,” she said.
This is understandable — Yale students are busy. Those who don’t think about work have other activities on their minds, clubs to run, meetings to attend. But Tobias Holden ’17 agrees with Kellman. He thinks we should all should be considering our job prospects, regardless of financial aid.
“People will care to learn about ‘high class’ things, like fancy art, for example, but people who already have access to that culture won’t know anything about getting a job. But I think that’s … a really important thing to know,” he said, laughing.
Kellman also takes issue with these differences in priorities, which, she believes, are rooted in class. She thinks the change in work-study policy will only exacerbate the current situation. And she’s had to put significant thought into class this semester, as she is constituency coordinator at the Women’s Center and therefore plays an important role in hiring.
“We’re probably the only group on campus in which students do the hiring, so we were in the awkward position of asking other students about their financial aid status,” she says. The group didn’t feel entirely comfortable asking directly — “I come from a background where asking people about this kind of thing is very taboo” — and so they instead searched for applicants’ eligibility for the 50/50 split on the Provost’s Office website.
Still, to Kellman and her co-workers, this didn’t quite solve the problem. It only posed a new set of questions: Did this technique violate the applicants’ privacy? Should they check an administrative website or ask an awkward question?
In theory, Kellman isn’t opposed to class conversations, she just thinks the new policy will aggravate the already-marked socio-economic differences between students. In fact, she thinks the University should eliminate work-study.
“The fact that there is a student income contribution at all really contributes to class differences,” she said.
In late August of my freshman year, the other members of my class and I sweat in Woolsey Hall. This time it’s not because we are washing dishes or busing plates — it’s because the hall is too small for thirteen hundred people, even when they’re completely sedentary. We sit and sweat and await University President Peter Salovey’s speech — today the president of our (our!) university will tell us something that must be important: why we are here, how we got here, what we are to do with ourselves now that we are.
From pamphlets and speeches like this one, it’s clear that Yale is proud of all the progress it has made. Fifty-three percent of students admitted last year receive aid, and the administration raised the financial aid budget to a record $120 million. Today, despite these encouraging facts, Salovey addresses the class of 2017 for the first time to talk about class, inequality and the American Dream.
His narrative is inspirational — granted, it’s not his narrative, but his father’s story. Ronald Salovey was the son of poor, immigrant parents: He grew up in the Bronx, went to Bronx Science, then City College of New York, then Brooklyn College, then (gasp) Harvard, then settled down to marry, raise young Pete in a middle-class neighborhood, and then, finally, voilà, he was the Dream actualized.
Why does Peter Salovey talk to us about the American Dream? Certainly not to brag about his father’s success. No, it’s “to assure [students] — especially those from families that are not affluent — that that dream is very much alive here at Yale.” Salovey cites the facts: College completion is increasing only for those in the top half of the socio-economic spectrum. He wants to play an important role in changing that statistic.
At this point, I have fallen asleep. But, in retrospect, I’m certain many of my peers were wide awake and thinking about their American Dream and how Yale would make it possible.
Some of us, maybe, have been dreaming the Yale dream since we were four and learned how to spell it. Some of us probably applied to Yale on whim.
Some always knew Yale was a possibility. Some never even thought it conceivable. Twelve percent of us are first-generation college students. Fifty-seven percent of us went to public schools. Fifty percent of us are on financial aid.
To be eligible for that aid, families must earn less than $200,000. If that salary is the invisible line separating the top and bottom halves of the income distribution range, then Yale truly is, in Salovey’s words, “a great equalizer.” But the median income in the United States is $51,017.
“Last year’s freshman address was ‘We Should Talk About Class,’” Blackmon says. “If it’s all words and no action, it’s more harm than good.”