The good news about the University’s new financial-aid policy is that 15 percent of students — all those whose families earn less than $60,000 a year — now face a reduced financial burden. The bad news is that only 15 percent of Yale College students come from families earning less than $60,000 — even though that income puts an American household firmly in the middle class.
What those numbers suggest is that making Yale affordable enough for lower- and lower-middle-class families isn’t enough. Yale’s solution so far is to create a Student Ambassadors program, an effort that pays current Yalies to visit high schools across the country and spread the message about Yale’s financial-aid offerings. That’s a reasonable first step: Without question, some otherwise qualified students shy away even from applying because they do not think the Ivy League is within their means.
But the divide between the nation’s lowest-income schools and the Ivy League may be too large for student presentations alone to close. If Yale is to open its doors wider, it must take a bolder, and more proactive, step on the part of the University. The most successful efforts to draw low-income students to top universities have come with a greater commitment and an earlier intervention than anything Yale has yet considered. The Quest Scholars Program brings disadvantaged students to the Stanford campus for a residential program after their sophomore or junior year of high school, and then offers five years of support. About 84 percent of the program’s alumni — many of whom are orphans or the primary wage-earners in their households — attend Stanford, MIT, Berkeley or an Ivy League school. The Posse program at schools like Middlebury and Brandeis links small groups of students from low-income schools and then admits them together, a strategy that has led to improved graduation rates and graduate-school admission.
Those may not be the right approaches for Yale, but they nevertheless suggest that a more ambitious effort is in order. Rather than simply conduct presentations, Yale could, for example, adopt 50 low-income public schools across the country. The University could help those schools strengthen their curricula and college advising, and it could invite their top students for summer programs in New Haven. From their first day of high school, the most motivated and talented students at these schools would be cultivated as potential applicants. Having formed a relationship with the University beginning in they ninth grade, many would no doubt aspire to Yale. The University would therefore have an edge in identifying applicants from these schools who are prepared for Yale, and even those who do not end up here would be better prepared for college.
Almost four decades after Yale opened its doors wider by accepting more minorities and going coeducational, it is time for Yale to go one step further. An ambitious effort to reach into the nation’s disadvantaged high schools would be expensive, but it would also be a firm statement that Yale cannot and should not be an upper-class institution.