When Jill Gray, an actress turned psychic fortune teller turned interpreter for the deaf, began her first Yale class five years ago, she never dreamed what a dent, or crater, it would leave on her checkbook.
But by the end of her first summer session here, the Ohio native did not even have enough money to pay for gas on her trip back to the Midwest.
And this was only the beginning of the financial battle for Gray, now 32. For Gray and Yale’s more than 30 other “special students” — undergraduates studying part-time — attending this university has marked a dream come true.
But the dream has been very expensive, because Yale does not offer financial aid for these students. Now Yale’s special students are pushing the University to make attending Yale more affordable for them.
Since special students can attend part-time, the program tends to attract older students returning to school. They meet the same criteria for both admission and graduation and take the same classes.
But they are treated very differently than their classmates by the university’s financial aid policies.
Jill Cutler, the director of the special students program, said these students are eligible for some government assistance, such as Pell Grants and Stafford Loans, but the University itself provides no money. Cutler said she was not sure why Yale does not offer the students any financial help.
Since degree-seeking special students make up less than two-thirds of one percent of Yale’s population, Gray said she thinks the current policy is a “budgetary oversight.”
But with costs at $1,950 per course credit for special students, and 36 credits required to graduate, financing her education has proven a big problem for Gray and other special students.
Gray said she will pay for her three credits this semester through loans and money begrudgingly given to her after legal battles with a vocational rehabilitation agency, for which she was a client. The agency saw Gray’s desire for a top-notch education as a “decadent luxury” and thought she should go to Ohio State University.
But to Gray, the chance to study at Yale was a bigger break than any part she ever got as an actress.
“You cannot deny anything that’s going to give you a leg up in life, like the name of the university or the education you know you’re going to get [at Yale],” Gray said.
Special student Mark Herz, 39, who began his college career at Brown University, said he did not want to obtain his degree at a cheaper public school either.
“For me, going back to college was going back to a college of the same caliber [as Brown],” he said.
Gray said she knew the lack of financial aid for special students was a problem before she came to Yale, but decided to enroll nonetheless.
“I figured once I got here, maybe I can ask for it to be changed,” Gray said.
And she did eventually did ask, along with Herz, at an open forum with Yale President Richard Levin April 4.
But Levin expressed little sympathy.
“We opened to special students to benefit those who could afford it,” Levin said. “We opened our doors to you. Isn’t that good enough?”
Gray said she is grateful for the opportunity to attend such a prestigious school, but still did not like Levin’s attitude about her financial plight.
“I mean, [Levin] seems to be saying that I should be happier than everyone else because I’m somehow less deserving,” she said.
In addition to issues of financial aid, Herz and Gray both said special students should be acknowledged for what they contribute to Yale through their unusual backgrounds.
Herz said almost everything he has composed in his writing career so far has been impacted by his 13-year-long career in psychiatry, and other life experiences he has had since he was 22 years old.
Herz said he is “older and balder and fatter and grayer” than his classmates, and he doesn’t care. He isn’t here for the “fashion show or popularity contest,” so he is able to focus and contribute more academically, he said.
Fred Strebeigh, Herz’s English 120 professor, acknowledged Herz’s hard work.
“You pushed the class to heights it would not have reached if you were not there,” Strebeigh wrote on Herz’s final paper.
In this same class, other students at first mistook Herz for the professor.
Herz said he thought the age difference between he and his classmates has prevented friendships. Nonetheless, many undergraduates have been supportive of special students’ quest for more support from the University.
Gray said as undergraduates fight for financial aid policy changes to match Princeton and Harvard, she said she hopes they include special students in their proposals.
And when administrators sit down at budget meetings to decide how much money can be subsidized for undergraduate education, Herz said he wants special students to be part of that discussion.
“I just hope we’ve started something. I hope we’ve empowered something,” Herz said.