When Alisha Butler ’09 sat down in her first class at Yale, she hadn’t yet graduated from high school — nor had she even submitted her admissions application. The year before she moved into her Old Campus dorm, the Hillhouse High School graduate, now a Calhoun College resident and political-science major, held her own among classes full of college students. In between homecoming and prom, Butler managed to complete courses in both the anthropology and political science departments — and within months, she was walking through Phelps Gate with her Yale ID.

Butler and the other New Haven high-school students selected by their guidance counselors to take classes at Yale through a special partnership with the city are among the Elm City residents who end up going to college just a short car ride away from home. Yearly, this handful of locals, mostly from area private schools, are a fixture in the freshman class.

In fact, they may even have a slight edge in admissions.

“We’re always glad to see kids to whom we can offer admission in the local area,” Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeff Brenzel said. “We would view [being from New Haven] as a positive part of the application.”

Brenzel said the freshman who hail from New Haven each year have a leg up in the application process because of the number of University affiliations in the local community coupled with local students’ tendency to take interest in Yale early on.

The admissions office pays “particular attention” to all New Haven high-school graduates in every admissions cycle, Brenzel said.

But Brenzel added that the New Haven affiliation does not hold equal weight in all applicants’ files — the difference it makes in an admissions officer’s assessment varies from applicant to applicant.

Guidance counselors from New Haven schools interviewed characterized Yale’s acceptance of local high-school students as a way to give back to New Haven in a small — but not insignificant — way.

“I don’t know whether [giving back to New Haven] is a goal of the Yale admissions office or not,” Wilbur Cross high-school counselor Douglas Finocchi said. “But I think that when they accept students from New Haven, that is in effect what happens.”

Testing out Yale

Although the number of New Haven students matriculating has dipped in recent years, the seven Elm City residents in the class of 2011 still outnumber the total number of students in their class from Nebraska, South Carolina and Idaho combined.

Over the past four years, 10 New Haven students, on average, have enrolled in each freshman class. This number reached 19 in the early 1980s but has dropped since then.

The number of local students drawn to each freshman class can be attributed to a combination of three main factors, according to Brenzel and area guidance counselors: increased access to research or classroom opportunities at Yale, alumni connections and student affiliations with faculty and staff.

A partnership between the city and Yale allows New Haven public and private high-school juniors and seniors approved by their guidance counselors to take Yale College academic courses for credits that can later be transferred to colleges at which they matriculate. Yale absorbs the cost of the public-high-school students’ tuitions and they are permitted to attend for free.

Slightly over 20 students take advantage of this program each semester, said Kathryn Young, associate director of Yale Summer Session and Yale College Special Programs. She said the program has received positive feedback from both high-school counselors and students, in particular because it allows students to take courses in an area they may have “maxed out” at their high schools.

Finocchi said “a number” of his students at Wilbur Cross take courses at Yale each year and have in some cases received A’s. Still, in many cases, these strong performances failed to impress the admissions office, he said.

But not in Butler’s.

“I thought the classes were great,” said Butler, who also enrolled in two classes the summer after her junior year through Yale’s Summer Session. “They really got me prepared for coming to Yale, understanding the amount of work and the level of analysis that would be required.”

Taking the classes also probably strengthened her application to Yale, Butler said, by showing admissions officers that she could hold her own in a classroom full of Yale students.

Brenzel said he does not recall a large number of applicants having taken classes at Yale during the school year, though he noted that this is only his third admissions cycle at Yale.

Area students also may have the opportunity to do research in Yale laboratories, said Dean Jacoby, director of college counseling at the private Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford, just north of New Haven. These partnerships may result in letters of recommendation from Yale professors, Jacoby said, which can improve applicants’ chances of admission.

University ties

Aside from taking classes or doing research, having a parent who teaches at Yale or works around campus can also contribute to an application, Brenzel said — although that alone will not guarantee admission.

Still, since many of Yale’s faculty and staff members live close by, most of the students with these kinds of connections live in the city, Brenzel explained.

New Haven is also home to over 7,400 Yale alumni — the third largest concentration after New York City and Washington, D.C., and having a parent who attended Yale, or another alumni connection, never hurts an applicant.

At Hopkins School — a private day school located just a few blocks from the Yale Bowl that sends an average of 10 students to Yale each year — the competition to get into Yale is fierce, Hopkins alumni interviewed said. Students whose parents attended Yale, popularly referred to as legacies, are seen as having an edge, they said.

The lack of a legacy tie was a big worry for Hillary Schepps ’10, who said that though neither of her parents attended Yale, the parents of many of her classmates who applied to Yale did.

“There’s a lot of competition about going to Yale,” Schepps said. “People get frustrated, especially over legacies.”

Although many Hopkins students are from New Haven, the school draws students from dozens of towns across Connecticut.

And the final group of area applicants that might be at an advantage: athletic recruits, said Peter Newman, a college counselor at the private Westminster School in Simsbury, Conn.

Because these students live so close to Yale, University coaches can travel to see them play far more easily than for athletes in, say, California, Newman said.

“A shining example”

For Micaela Gramelis ’09 — a graduate of West Haven High School who grew up just 10 miles away from campus — attending Yale was constantly extolled as the de facto standard of excellence.

“Yale was the only really good school I heard about when I was younger,” Gramelis said. “It was held up on this pedestal, like ‘Yale’s the best school ever.’”

Though Gramelis said she entertained doubts about whether going to college so close to home was wise because she would not be leaving the area in which she grew up, she always kept the possibility of attending Yale in the back of her mind as something she had been aspiring to her entire life.

And now as a Berkeley College junior majoring in psychology, she says the diversity of Yale’s campus means she never feels like she’s still at home.

Many of the New Haven students and college guidance counselors interviewed said growing up in New Haven encourages students to view an acceptance letter to Yale as the pinnacle of achievement. This phenomenon may contribute to the prevalence of New Haven — and, more generally, Connecticut — students at Yale.

At Hopkins, most of the best students enter the college admissions process “predisposed” toward Yale, college counseling director Susan Paton said. Yale consequently sees a talented pool of applicants from Hopkins each year, from which the admissions office selects a significant number, she said, notwithstanding some students’ comments that the large proportion of their classmates applying to Yale can detract from individual applications.

Although a small number of Choate Rosemary Hall students shy away from Yale because it is so close to home, most consider it an extremely desirable school, Jacoby said.

“The vast majority of students, because of Yale’s proximity and excellence, see it as a shining example of what college is supposed to be like and therefore an ideal to aim for,” Jacoby said.

Still, many of the New Haven residents currently at Yale interviewed said they had misgivings about attending a school so close to where they grew up.

Hopkins graduate Emma Ledbetter ’10, for example, said she was nervous about staying in New Haven.

Up until she submitted her application, in fact, she said she claimed that Yale was “the last place I was going to go.”

Although Ledbetter said she likes Yale for the most part, she plans to study abroad next year, to get some distance from the Elm City.

But while many high-achieving New Haven students may spend years picturing themselves walking through Phelps Gate, Yale is far out of the reach of many students at local high schools.

Co-op High School junior Dannieka Wiggins — at Yale over the weekend for the kickoff of Eli Days, a YCC-sponsored college mentoring program for New Haven high school students — dismissed the notion that she or her classmates might consider applying to Yale.

“Nobody from Co-op would have a good chance at getting in to Yale,” she explained.

Admissions-office access

But despite the obvious perks of being so close to the University, Yale’s admissions office makes no special effort to recruit New Haven high-school students beyond the admissions officer visits standard across the country, the area guidance counselors interviewed said.

Because of Yale’s proximity to their homes, local applicants have greater access to campus tours, information sessions and admissions interviews with Yale seniors, they said.

Yale also sponsors a “Multicultural Open House” each fall that is heavily promoted to the immediate region — Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey — Brenzel said. Close to 1,000 high school students and their parents attend each year.

The Yale Club of New Haven tries to encourage local high-school students to consider Yale as part of its Yale Book Awards program. Each year, guidance counselors at around 40 area high schools select one junior from each of their schools to receive the book award — physically, a hardcover book — from the Yale Club the following October.

The program for the winners, held on campus, features a tour of campus, a panel of current Yale students from the immediate area and lunch in the Davenport College dining hall, said Book Award Event Chair Elaine Piraino-Holevoet ’75.

Since many of the students who receive the award are thinking about leaving the city for college, Piraino-Holevoet said, the Yale Club tries to encourage them to consider Yale by having them talk to students who were once in their position and by welcoming them to campus.

Over the years, students have changed their minds and applied to Yale after attending the program, she said.

But as the acceptance rate has decreased over the years, the number of book-award winners accepted to Yale has decreased as well. About a decade ago, around nine students would get in each year, but that number has decreased since then, Piraino-Holevoet said.

Piraino-Holevoet added that she hopes the Yale Club and Yale organizations like the Yale College Council — which recently organized a college-mentoring program for New Haven high-school students — can collaborate in the future on programs to encourage New Haven high-school students to apply to Yale.

As part of the book-award program, the Yale Club invites administrators and guidance counselors from each of the participating schools to attend a session with the Yale admissions office on how to apply to Yale in particular and college in general.

“Anything you can do to help students find the schools that are a good match for them and help them pull their applications together, that’s a good thing,” Holevoet said.

Giving back to New Haven?

Most of the guidance counselors agreed that although Yale contributes to New Haven in other more significant ways — supporting the city’s economic infrastructure and employing many of its citizens, for example — the enthusiasm of the admissions office about accepting local students is a bonus for the city.

Local students, in turn, can also contribute to Yale’s diversity, Hillhouse High School guidance counselor Carol Cook said.

“Because Yale is such a big part of New Haven, [the University] certainly if nothing else wants to give a chance to their own,” Cook said. “But I also think they believe our students from the inner city will bring diversity to the campus.”

Yale’s competitive applicant pool means that the University cannot accept more than a tiny fraction of New Haven’s high-school students, Brenzel said. As a result, he said, the benefit to the city of admitting area students is dwarfed by Yale’s many other investments in the community.

For the New Haven students who do end up walking through Phelps Gate in the fall, living so close to home has its benefits — home-cooked dinners and easy access to parental transportation — but it can also have its drawbacks.

Said Schepps: “I run into my parents at bars downtown sometimes, and it’s kind of awkward, but for the most part it’s fine, I guess.”