Financial aid changed my family’s life completely. When my grandfather came back from the war, the GI Bill let him go to college. His father was a proud, hardworking but very poor tobacco farmer in the hills of eastern Kentucky. Before Roosevelt, he never could have dreamed of sending his daughter or sons to college. The few hundred dollars’ tuition at a state school would have been impossible, and anyway, the farm needed everyone’s hands. But the Rural Electrification Administration let him buy an electric milking machine, and the GI Bill paid the boys’ tuition. And so my grandfather, and millions like him, could go off to school and change the face of American higher education in the process. My grandfather couldn’t have gone to Yale on a GI scholarship, nor could either of my parents have gone out of state; but I can be here now. Financial aid made that whole story possible.
My family history isn’t anything special. Lord only knows how many other people here could tell one like it. But the point is, we as a community have to take financial aid seriously. It makes our university what it is. We Yalies are famous for loving our school, and with good reason. The experience we get to have here is precious and rare. Our professors are world-class and our classmates uncommonly brilliant. So we should be doing everything we can to make sure this amazing experience can be something all Yalies can share in alike, according to their own interests and needs.
Over the last two weeks, I’ve spent a few hours talking with fellow Sillimanders about financial aid, as part of a larger canvass by the Undergraduate Organizing Committee. (If you’d like to hear more of our findings and talk with representatives from the financial aid office, we’re having a forum at 4:30 today in the Dwight Hall Library.) One of the things that we kept hearing in that canvass was how being on financial aid colored the Yale experience. In particular, it was not unusual for students to be working nearly 20 hours a week on work-study jobs, or to be making their employment plans around the prospect of paying back student loans. Everyone is thrilled and grateful to be here, but some people feel they aren’t getting all they could out of the experience because they have to work so hard just to stay here. Too many of our classmates can’t be full-time students.
Let me be clear. Everyone who wants to work at Yale should be able to, but too many people have to. I personally love my job as a computing assistant, as I’ve written at length in this space before. Even if I didn’t have to work to keep myself here, I’d probably still have taken the job. The experience has been that valuable. But I’ve talked with too many people who are having to sacrifice their Yale experience to support their Yale experience. Yale’s self-help policy for financial aid students means that we must contribute thousands of dollars on our own steam each year, either by mortgaging our futures with loans or by working during the term in addition to our school and personal work.
We all work night and day for our education, whether we’re on financial aid or not. In the strictly academic sense of our education, we study hard. We do our reading and problem sets and papers, this time of year we take our midterms, and we take lots of notes in lecture. And we work at our personal and preprofessional education every time we tutor or go to a play or sponsor a conference. We sharpen each other’s minds in the dining hall and challenge each other’s consciences in our religious fellowships. This work is often fun and exciting, but we must not downplay its importance. It’s our reason for being here, our “super-objective,” as my actor friends would say. Not that we can or should separate the college experience from everything that surrounds it and makes it possible. We just have to keep our eye on the ball. We shouldn’t have to choose between working on our education and working to keep our opportunity to be educated.
The University is supposed to be a community of scholars. That was the liberal-arts ideal I learned from my professor father and his professor father. It does cost money to keep such communities thriving, and I don’t mind paying my share. But the more we think of education as an investment in our future salaries, as a commodity bought and paid for, the more we’re missing the point. The University’s philosophy, as expressed in both the self-help policy and in public statements, is that people should have to sacrifice for their educations, in addition to the work they do to become educated. By all means, let’s do what we need to keep this the university we’re so proud of. But we should find some way to stop sacrificing students’ educations for the University’s sake. Please join our conversation this afternoon, so we can find a better way together.
Christopher Ashley is a senior in Silliman College.