Here at Yale we spend hours discussing those issues that directly affect our lives — family, classes, politics, relationships — but all these discussions seem to tiptoe around, or avoid entirely, one of the defining characteristics of my — and many other — Yale experiences. I am on financial aid, and that fact brings into my life a host of considerations which profoundly affect my time here. With our standardized rooms, standardized furniture, and prepaid meal plans, there is a sense of equality of wealth among students that belies substantial differences in the realities students in different economic groups face. But first, a word about my experience.
For those who have never had to navigate Yale’s financial aid program, the forty-thousand-odd dollars needed to pay for a year of college usually come from three sources. In my case, the process begins with a grant from the University; this is a gift and need not be repaid. The remaining amount is split between the family contribution, which my parents pay, and the “self-help” and summer employment contributions, for which I am responsible. This year, my total contribution came out to about two-thirds of what each of my parents pays; in practical terms, this means books, personal expenses, travel to and from Seattle, and a portion of the tuition itself.
Last year, this did not seem to be much of a burden — I had a substantial outside scholarship and managed to avoid taking out student loans. This year is my first attempt to earn my entire contribution on my own. This past summer, I worked three jobs, at times in excess of 40 hours per week, and was just able to meet my summer employment contribution. Even with a fellowship, unpaid summer activities were out of the question. As for the self-help, academic year portion, it is possible to earn the entire amount through term-time work — but only if one works 19.5 hours each week. Aware of the strain that a half-time job can put on other spheres of life, especially the coursework the job is supposed to cover, I chose to work fewer hours this year. In order to compensate, I have attempted to cut costs — usually in the form of plane tickets home — but it will not be enough, and so this August I found myself staring blankly at a federal loan application.
For the first time, my financial situation cast a shadow not only on my term-time schedule, my daily expenses, and my summer plans, but also on my life after college. Most agonizingly, it was all my choice — compromise my academic experience now or my post-graduation financial freedom? I thought of my friends at less expensive public institutions, receiving a fine education for a fraction of the price I pay. Would Yale be worth summers of working minimum-wage jobs just to buy a plane ticket back to New Haven? Would it be worth the months or years I’ll spend paying off my student loans?
Yet even as I deliberated, I was keenly aware of how lucky I am. Though the family contribution amounts to a considerable fraction of their annual income, my parents are willing to pay it. I have never been forced to miss out on a class because the books were too expensive. I even have enough money to go home for most breaks. If I find myself wondering whether Yale is worth the compromises I have to make to stay here, others must be wrestling with even more serious compromises and more difficult decisions. I wonder what they’re thinking, how they manage their responsibilities, and what impact their financial aid packages affect their lives. I felt unusually alone while signing my loan application; I knew many others at Yale were in similar situations, but had heard little from them. For many reasons, such issues tend to go unmentioned; these challenges and students’ responses to them go largely unshared.
Over the coming fortnight, members of the Undergraduate Organizing Committee will be knocking on doors across campus to talk to students about their experiences with and opinions on financial aid. We are interested in the perspectives of students from all levels of the economic spectrum; I share my experience with you in the hope that you will feel comfortable sharing yours with the students who come to your door. I encourage you all, however, to share those perspectives not only with canvassers, but with your friends as well. Financial aid requirements affect too many students too deeply to remain taboo; we will never benefit from our existing economic diversity if we never engage in dialogue. No matter what your financial status, dialogue has the potential to lead you to rethink your Yale experience, and to realize how wildly different these four years can be.
Sofie Fenner is a sophomore in Morse College. She is a member of the Undergraduate Organizing Committee.