When Jacob Sayler ’09 applied to colleges last year, he knew Yale was one of his top choices. The University was familiar turf for Sayler because the Bismarck, N.D. native had watched his older brother head to Yale just two years earlier.
But none of Sayler’s friends who excelled academically in school like he had applied to Yale because they assumed they would not be able to afford the tuition, Sayler said. And because the Yale Admissions Office never sent anyone to visit the region that year, his friends never learned about Yale’s need-based financial aid policies, he said.
“They just assume that you have to be rich to go to Yale,” Sayler said. “I think definitely more of them would have applied if there had been a representative from Yale.”
Last spring, Yale made sweeping changes to its financial aid policy, eliminating the parental contribution for students from families earning $45,000 and reducing it for students from families earning between $45,000 and $60,000. The changes were designed to encourage low-income students to give Yale a second look.
At the time, Yale President Richard Levin said these financial aid changes would be accompanied by increased outreach and recruitment efforts to high school students and guidance counselors from lower-income parts of the country.
The University took its first steps towards fulfilling this commitment in May, with the launch of a pilot version of the Yale Ambassadors Program, which sent a handful of current Yale students and alumni to their hometowns to conduct information sessions for prospective applicants. The program will expand this fall to send about 100 current Yale students to their native regions to conduct outreach.
But some college counselors said the pilot program sent ambassadors to schools already covered by Yale recruiters or with predominantly upper- and middle-class students, presenting a challenge to the University as it tries to fully realize the goals of socioeconomic diversity that Yale’s top brass hailed last spring.
Not enough information?
Many of the students already at Yale who hail from underrepresented regions of the country seem to have a common story: special circumstances led to their decisions to apply to Yale. Their stories help illustrate the rationale behind the Ambassadors Program.
Chantelle Blue Arm ’08 said she was personally familiar with Yale because she attended the Native American Preparatory School in Colorado, but she said Yale’s outreach efforts in her home state of South Dakota were comparatively paltry.
“I know that the representative only travels to Sioux Falls … [but] not everyone is going to be able to drive five hours, especially minorities or Native Americans,” Blue Arm said. “They don’t have the means to travel that far.”
Jamie McSpadden ’08 also said he thinks Yale does not do enough to recruit students from traditionally underrepresented states like his native South Carolina.
“There are no Yale admissions officers or any admissions officers from other schools to say, ‘Yeah, this is feasible,'” McSpadden said.
McSpadden said he was surprised by how well-connected Yale officials are to schools in more cosmopolitan cities.
Another South Carolina native, Caitlin O’Brien ’08, said she was similarly frustrated because she had to travel for hours to a private high school in Charlotte, N.C., to attend a Yale information session.
“I couldn’t even get an interview for Yale because they run their interviews very strictly by whatever admissions district you’re in and we didn’t even have anyone available in our district,” O’Brien said.
In the small town of Medford, Ore., about 270 miles from Portland, many students do not apply to schools like Yale because they think they will not be able to afford it, said Hal Jones, the assistant principal at South Medford High School.
“I think the perception among some students is that it may be cost prohibitive,” Jones said. “Unless there is an active recruiting program … it might be difficult for a student to have a really correct perception.”
In launching the ambassadors program last spring, Yale sent about six current undergraduates and recent alumni to their hometowns to recruit prospective students, said Jeremiah Quinlan ’03, the acting director of outreach at the admissions office. The ambassadors visited high schools in three states from which they hailed: Utah, Tennessee and Kentucky.
But critics said some of the high schools the ambassadors visited already received attention from Yale and were not the kind of low-income schools the University should be targeting. What’s more, they said, the program would do well to expand its reach to recruit in additional states.
Yale also hired about eight students to work exclusively on low-income recruiting over the summer, contacting prospective students from underrepresented areas via e-mail, telephone and mail, Quinlan said. The admissions office does not have available statistics on the total budget of the pilot program, acting Dean of Admissions Margit Dahl said.
Despite the student staffing additions, the admissions office has not hired any new, full-time admissions officers to focus exclusively on recruiting students from lower-income regions, Dahl said. She said officers usually work concurrently on reading applications and conducting outreach.
Some guidance counselors at high schools targeted by the pilot program — including those in Salt Lake City and Knoxville, Tenn. — said they already received regular visits from Yale admissions officers and that the student ambassadors’ visits were virtually identical. In addition, they said their schools were comfortably middle class and did not need the recruiting as much as other schools in their regions.
Orin Johansen, a counselor at West High School in Salt Lake City, said Yale visits his high school every year and a significant number of students from the high school apply to Ivy League institutions. Andy Prewitt, a counselor at Central High School in Knoxville — one of the schools targeted by the Ambassadors Program last spring — also said that Yale already visits his school annually.
Other guidance counselors at targeted high schools said they would not classify their high schools as falling in the low-income category. Carole Palmer, a counselor at Skyline High School in Salt Lake City, described the school as socio-economically “above average” and said most of the students at her school come from middle- to high-income families.
Michael Cheng, a student at Skyline, said he attended the Yale presentation last spring and few of his classmates were concerned about financial aid.
“It didn’t apply terribly to a lot of people in the room because Skyline is more financially well off than most of the schools in the state,” Cheng said.
While the admissions office did not exclusively target low-income students, it identified less affluent regions with talented students, Dahl said.
“It’s not as though anyone goes on the road saying, ‘I’m only going to talk to low income students at low income schools’,” Dahl said. “We try and identify regions or areas where there its more likely that there are more students who might be well qualified in the lower income areas, but while we are doing that recruiting we will talk to anyone who comes to our info session. It’s not meant to be an exclusive kind of recruiting.”
Dahl also said she thinks the program is on track to be successful, but there remains more to be done.
“You can always do more, but you have to start somewhere, and I think that where we started was a good place,” Dahl said.
Ambassadors a solution?
This fall, with the expansion of the Student Ambassador Program, the University hopes more students will blanket the country to increase awareness about Yale’s new financial aid policies.
Harvard University runs a similar program and hired 10 students to do outreach in lower-income areas the summer after Harvard announced a new financial aid policy in 2004 to target low-income students, Harvard admissions officer Melanie Brennand Mueller said.
Yale’s ambassadors will not be reimbursed for their travel expenses, but they will be paid $50 for the first school they visit and $20 for each subsequent school visit. Students will be selected through an application process, according to an e-mail sent to the student body this weekend. The admissions office will coordinate with the student ambassadors to have them visit schools near their hometowns, Dahl said.
Still, some students said they were disappointed by Yale’s recent announcement of the Ambassadors Program. McSpadden said he worries that students without a connection to the admissions office may not want to sign up for the program.
“I really don’t think its enough,” McSpadden said. “I’m glad we’re making some effort whereas there hasn’t been one in the past, but I think there needs to be more done.”
Bryan Crady, a guidance counselor at DuPont Manual High School in Louisville, Ky., said he thinks a professional admissions officer would be more effective than student ambassadors. Still, some Yale students said they think it is better to send current students because they can relate more personally to prospective students than professional admissions officers could.
Jamal Fulton ’08, who served as a student ambassador last spring in his home state of Tennessee, said he thinks the program is a good move towards establishing a more socio-economically diverse student body.
“I know that there’s a lot of work that will continue to be done, and there’s always work to be done,” Fulton said.
Dahl said meeting Yale’s goal of attracting a more diverse student body may be a slow process.
“This just isn’t the kind of thing that will be completed by a certain date,” Dahl said. “It’s going to be an ongoing effort.”