If a Yalie’s origins make him who he is, the University has a long way to go in shedding its reputation as a haven for the privileged. An analysis of students’ home communities shows that despite their appearance on paper, Yalies are hardly a slice of the general population: about four-fifths hail from areas that are wealthier, better educated and less diverse than the national median.
The Yale Daily News analyzed the listed zip codes of 4,607 undergraduates and matched them to socioeconomic data taken from the 2000 Census. The findings flesh out a common anecdotal suspicion: Elis come from thousands of different places, but they share the same side of the tracks. About 82 percent of Yalies come from zip codes in which the median family income exceeds the national median — $50,046 in 1999. And the average Yale undergraduate lives in a zip code where the median income is $82,576.
While the results do not directly represent the students themselves, they do reflect the environments in which the students were raised. Zip codes are the smallest geographical areas for which the Census Bureau releases data, and are considered meaningful tools for analyzing community characteristics, according to a Census Bureau spokesman.
The results defied some Yalies’ perceptions of diversity on campus. When Guy Krug ’07 read descriptions of Yale in college guides before he arrived on campus, he was pleased to find that it did not fill the elitist stereotype that comes with the Ivy League brand. Yale has a relatively healthy 32 percent of minority students, with 40 percent of students on financial aid. And because over half of Yale’s incoming freshmen attended public schools, Krug said he expected a student population with more varied backgrounds.
“It does surprise me a little bit,” he said. “From the way Yale spins it, it would seem that our campus is more diverse.”
The student body’s affluence demonstrates the difficulty in enrolling elite scholars while avoiding elitist standards, Yale College Dean Peter Salovey said.
“We are very mindful that there remains a strong correlation in this nation between a student’s economic circumstances and his or her level of academic preparation and achievement,” Salovey wrote in an e-mail.
Sociology professor Ulrich Schreiterer said that merit-based admissions pose a paradox in the University’s ideology. If Yale admits applicants based solely on qualification, he said it must draw from wealthier areas with better schools, cutting down on diversity. The selection process thus systematically excludes the lower classes, he said.
“It certainly is a function of higher education to reproduce elites in social and educational status,” Schreiterer said.
Other sociology and education experts, however, said the prevalence of wealthy students results more from access to higher education than from merit. Cost is one factor — federal grant programs have failed to keep up with rising tuition over past decades, deterring poorer students from exploring a college career.
Yale has not challenged the national trend, although the University has pledged to meet students’ demonstrated need since 1966. An analysis by the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education found that Yale’s enrollment of undergraduates with federal Pell Grants, which are routinely awarded to low-income students, comprised 10.5 percent of the student body in 2003 — slightly lower than 20 years earlier. JBHE ranked Yale 24th out of the nation’s top 30 schools in low-income enrollment.
Cost is only one obstacle to higher education. Poorer communities are also generally composed of less educated citizens who do not pressure their children to attend college, or ensure that high schools are motivating them to apply, Sociology Department Chair Karl Ulrich Mayer said.
“It’s not only parental ambition, but it’s the larger community which takes for granted that one would try to get in a good school,” Mayer said. “It’s clear that you have high ability students from low income groups who don’t take the academic route.”
The statistics correlate with Mayer’s statement: only 16 percent of Yalies live in zip codes where less than one fourth of residents — the national median — hold a bachelor’s degree.
But South Gate Senior High School near Los Angeles, Calif., defies the fate of other institutions in its socioeconomic circumstances. Its student body is almost entirely Hispanic, and only five percent of the surrounding population hold bachelor’s degrees. Many students live in small, crowded homes without Internet access. Yet three of its graduates currently attend Yale, and others attend Harvard and Brown.
South Gate’s college counselor, Shawna Parish-Valbuena, attributes the school’s success to a strong college preparation program that sets it apart from other area high schools. Counselors begin discussing college with students in the eighth grade, and work with teachers to offer Advanced Placement courses and workshops on the application process.
“When it comes time to apply, [our students] feel very confident in the experiences they’ve had,” Valbuena said. “They can believe that they belong on those campuses.”
Valbuena said her students are sometimes unsure about stereotypes they may face when they mingle with wealthier students with more cash to burn on extravagant expenses. It likely does not help that Yale undergraduates spend about $400 — twice the national average for college students — every month in New Haven during the school year , according to estimates from the University’s Office of New Haven and State Affairs.
Although her students usually have not traveled the world or participated in expensive extracurricular activities, Valbuena said they still bring a unique perspective to college campuses. Because parents often lack the resources and education to provide their children with enriching activities, she said students have had to find them in the community at large.
“My students are not talking with their parents about politics or medical changes,” Valbuena said. “But they will search for other ways to learn about those things, through movies, books, or local theaters. My students enlighten others about where they come from.”
Local perspectives need to be shared at schools that shape future leaders, said Michael McPherson, who is president of the Spencer Foundation, which funds research on educational issues.
“People who are going to move into leadership in society should have broad experiences and a sense of how other Americans live,” he said.
Elizabeth Crawford ’09 personally knows the dangers of a homogenous environment. Her zip code in Dallas, TX, which she shares with five other Yale undergraduates, is only 0.1 percent black and has a median family income of $151,261. Crawford said the almost entirely white environment made people more comfortable with denigrating minority groups. Though her case is particularly severe, 83 percent of Yalies come from zip codes in which the number of blacks is disproportionately low.About the same number holds for Hispanic populations.
Crawford also said her area’s homogeneity led everyone to pursue the same goal: “working for your father and marrying the girl next door.” But she said, Yale students do not bring their neighbors’ narrow-mindedness to campus.
“Even though somebody didn’t live it, they’re still fighting for the cause,” she said. “I can’t complain.”
Eugene Tobin, who heads the Liberal Arts Colleges program at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, said socioeconomic diversity is as important as racial diversity on college campuses. His book, Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education, advocates economic affirmative action alongside current race-based policies.
“It may be that [Yale] has the requisite number of students of color that mirrors the national data,” Tobin said. “But many of those students may come from … families with more wealth than the average. Every university should have a diverse student population that cuts across class and race.”
Tobin’s theories may to hold true at Yale, where only about 11.5 percent of all undergraduates’ families earn less than $60,000. That figure is based on data for financial aid recipients, which Mayer said mirrors the income distribution of the neediest students.
Tobin said he thinks Yale is one of many colleges that needs to adopt economic affirmative action. His research on top U.S. schools suggests that 11 percent of applicants are from low-income backgrounds, and only six percent are first-generation college students.
Salovey said the University is pursuing diversity on a number of fronts. To ensure that inability to pay tuition is not a factor, the school maintains a need-blind admission policy and guarantees to meet students’ demonstrated needs.
“To be as successful as possible, Yale’s financial aid policy needs to be combined with ongoing outreach to ensure that high school students of limited means are fully aware that Yale is affordable,” Salovey wrote in the e-mail.
While higher education can do more to help poorer students, McPherson said a diploma will not fix their underlying disadvantage.
“Starting from the earliest ages there is enormously unequal opportunity in this society,” he said. “Yale should do its bit, but it’s a much bigger problem than that.”