As an alumnus of Yale and its financial aid system, I’ve had a hard time staying away from the recent hubbub surrounding financial aid reform. President Levin might think that Yale’s financial aid policies are of interest only to current students, but I would like to remind the administration that today’s students will be tomorrow’s alumni, and probably more than a few — such as myself — will leave Yale with the feeling of having been cheated out of something worthwhile.
My entire Yale experience can be described as a mad scramble for money to both fund my education and support my family. Before I came to Yale, my father had fled the country, conveniently taking the family’s entire savings. For reasons I still cannot understand, Yale was not too sympathetic, offering mostly loans, and asking for a parent contribution that was beyond what my mother could reasonably provide. Nevertheless, attending a school like Yale at any price seemed to make all the sense in the world. I worked 20 to 30 hours a week on top of whatever classes I took, and in a pathetic attempt to save snack money, smuggled large quantities of food and drink out of the dining halls. When I moved off-campus, I continued to raid nearby dorms for toilet paper (single ply until senior year), cleaning supplies (Lysol is overpriced), printer paper (never enough around), and even matzo bread (I’m not Jewish, but those things were tasty).
I don’t think most Yalies understand what it feels like to be in constant need of money and how that affects a person’s sense of self-worth. People thought I was antisocial, which was true, but I also avoided socializing to save money. A last-minute plea from my mother prevented me from undergoing a spinal tap for $2,000 (it was for research), and when a roommate joked that he would pay my tuition if I carried him around in a rickshaw, I almost hoped that he was serious. Yale’s Asian Americans would have crucified me, but I would have done it — I was that desperate.
Despite my efforts, Yale threatened me every year with expulsion for not having paid my tuition bill, triggering frantic rushes for cash from credit cards, relatives and even an old boss from New York. To add insult to injury, Yale’s financial aid office did not believe that my father had fled the country (a lawyer’s letter and a written explanation were not enough), requiring me to tearfully explain in person. The following year, it even asked me to repeat the story.
I graduated from Yale with over $60,000 of student loan debt and personal loans. Though a job in investment banking allowed me to become debt-free in just over a year, I have a hard time accepting that the best part about my Yale experience was getting into investment banking. Based on his recent comments, President Levin would probably tell me that my experience built character and is an example of me being “invested” in my education. To me, this is about as sensitive as telling blacks to look at the positive aspects of slavery.
What further disappoints me is how Harvard has once again relegated Yale to either an also-ran or never-ran status. Despite his faults, Larry Summers should be commended for reaching out to lower-income students and trying to mitigate the impact that financial burdens may have on the overall Harvard experience. Had Mr. Summers not made such a sweeping change, it is unlikely that President Levin would have even considered reforming Yale’s financial aid system.
As an alumnus who recently realized that life is too short to be bitter, and who hopefully can contribute generously to Yale in the future (given Levin’s stated preference for legacies), I urge President Levin to take the initiative for once in his too-cautious career and go beyond what Harvard has done. Despite what I had to go through, I was privileged to have attended Yale, and I still think that Yale can be a wonderful place, if only it would allow every student the same opportunities to make the most of their precious college years in every respect.
David Oh graduated from Yale College in 2000.