The Undergraduate Admissions Office recently launched its Student Ambassadors Program as a way of reaching out to students at “high-achieving, lower-income” schools. Yale students will conduct information sessions at high schools near their hometowns with the dual purpose of providing information about Yale’s improved financial aid and giving college guidance to students who receive little help from their schools.
Yale is right to address college guidance as a major weakness in public education. At my high school, an urban campus housing three magnet programs and a residential population, one college counselor served a population of nearly 4,000. Though we had dozens of “high-achieving, low-income” students, the school’s main priority was not getting those students into prestigious universities; it was getting the lower-performing students to graduate.
Given enormous endowments and recent leaps in financial aid, an Ivy League education is no longer out of reach for applicants with limited financial means. Why, then, do bright urban and rural students continue to be diverted off the path to excellence? Both a lack of resources and a mentality of limited expectations lie at the root of this dilemma, and though the problem of social inequality extends far beyond college applications, the Admissions Office should be commended for its efforts.
But what about the next step? When I read the e-mail inviting me to apply to be an Ambassador, I wondered how I would really feel about going back to my high school and urging kids to apply to Yale. Would I tell them how hard my first semester had been, and how unprepared I had felt on my first day of classes?
On the other hand, would I ignore them and leave them to be funneled into state schools or the military? It would be against my — and Yale’s — principles to discourage students from applying simply because they received a less-than-stellar high school education. We have begun, at least on our end, to break through the barriers of limited economic means and limited expectations. Now we must address an equally pressing issue: limited preparation.
Though exceptions exist, students from lower-income public schools are simply less prepared for their first year of Yale than their prep-school and suburban public school counterparts. Unlike academically rigorous college-prep and IB programs, where skills needed to succeed in college are heavily emphasized, lower-income public schools are erratic at best in their teaching of analytical writing skills. Even after two years of AP English, I had never been asked to write anything longer than a two-page essay.
In addition to broadening its recruitment of lower-income public school students, Yale would be wise to institute an on-campus summer-prep program designed to help incoming freshmen acclimate to the academic terrain of an Ivy League university.
Such a program, perhaps four or five weeks in length, would consist primarily of an intensive writing workshop in which students would read and discuss selected works of literature and history and write two to three full-length analytical papers.
Professors and writing tutors would guide students through the processes of brainstorming, outlining, writing and revising, giving them invaluable practice for the papers that will be expected of them in their writing, humanities and social-science courses at Yale.
The program would also provide workshops on navigating Sterling Memorial Library, writing research papers, and taking effective notes — all skills that are crucial to surviving at Yale but not necessarily cultivated in a public school environment. As a follow-up, students would be given a personal writing tutor to help them continue to improve their writing during their freshman year.
Such a program, geared especially toward students from lower-income public schools, would be completely subsidized for students on financial aid. In addition, the summer contribution for aid students participating in the program would be reduced or waived; as in other arenas, Yale should value success and academic preparedness more than the ability to juggle school and work.
A program like this would not only help prepare students academically for their first semester at Yale, but it would also introduce them to the campus and allow them to meet and forge bonds with students with similar high school experiences, thus easing the emotional transition as well.
One might call such a program unrealistic or financially unfeasible; I would call it a challenge. If the financially strapped University of California can afford a system-wide Department of Student Academic Preparation and dozens of other initiatives aimed at high-potential lower-income students, then a school like Yale, with a staggering $15.2 billion endowment, should be able to make the same commitment.
The launch of the Student Ambassadors program brings us to an important crossroads. Yale has made a small but crucial gesture toward the “high-achieving, lower-income” public school community; we are now waiting to see how far the University is willing to take it.
Liz Koenig is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College.