Newly admitted applicants to the Yale College class of 2016 now have until May 1 to decide whether they will spend the next four years of their lives in New Haven. But even after the Elm City registered a 20-year high homicide count with 34 murders in 2011, 13 applicants interviewed said the city’s crime rates did not influence their decision to apply to Yale and ultimately would not influence their decision to matriculate.
“Although I have gotten many comments since I was accepted in the line of ‘Try not to get shot,’ I didn’t really take the threat of high crime rates too seriously in my decision to apply to Yale,” said Zach Edelman ’16, a senior at Scarsdale High School who was admitted early in December and will attend Yale in the fall. “Yale is a great school that always receives rave reviews from its students, and it seemed silly to base my decision on fringe statistics.”
Edelman’s attitude is mirrored by 12 other applicants and five college guidance counselors interviewed, who all said New Haven’s crime rates played only a marginal role, if any, in their perception of Yale’s attractiveness as a school. Though those interviewed said there are safety concerns on any campus located in an urban setting, they added that the benefits of one day attending Yale outweighed the minor reservations they might have had about the city’s public safety.
“Reputation is strong because reality is strong,” said Yale spokesman Michael Morand ’87 DIV ’93 of both New Haven and Yale. “When real people visit and check out the facts, they get it.”
While New Haven has grappled with a reputation of violence for decades, this history appears to be far from the minds of the 1,975 students accepted to the class of 2016 as they weigh their college options.
A TROUBLED HISTORY
Despite the city’s high homicide count in 2011, overall violent crime — a U.S. Department of Justice category that includes homicides, forcible rape, assault and robbery — in New Haven is on the decline: it dropped 11 percent last year and is down about 20 percent so far this year. At the same time, an influx of new businesses such as the Apple Store, which opened on Broadway last September, and Shake Shack, which is slated to open on Chapel Street next fall, points to the strength the Elm City’s growing economy, Morand said.
But in the early 1990s, violent crime was at the center of New Haven’s reputation: the city was rife with drug-related crimes and saw three times as many shootings per year as there are today.
Beginning in the late 1980s, more than 1,000 major crimes were committed annually on Yale’s campus and reported under the Department of Education’s Clery Act, a federal statute requiring all colleges and universities receiving federal funding to disclose information about campus crime. Major crimes, which includes reported cases of larceny, rape and theft, peaked in 1990 with 1,439.
National media began to notice: headlines of stories about New Haven that ran in The New York Times included “Armed Youths Turn New Haven Into a Battleground” in 1991 and “Drug Gangs Thrive as Arsenals Expand” in 1992.
The negative press damaged the Yale brand, University President Richard Levin said.
“We suffered for some period of time the consequences of that bad publicity,” said Levin, who took office in 1993. “But I would say that since then there’s been nothing comparable, and since then the city has only improved in the quality of its downtown.”
New Haven faced “terrible” crime that peaked in the early 1990s, said Yale historian Gaddis Smith ’54 GRD ’61. The low point in Yale’s public safety image came after Christian Prince ’91 was murdered on Feb. 17, 1991, on the steps of St. Mary’s Church on Hillhouse Avenue — just a block from the President’s House.
In the years following Prince’s murder, Yale spent millions of dollars upgrading public safety apparatuses on campus and increasing the number of police and security personnel. After the University commissioned independent consulting firms to examine its security procedures, Yale enhanced its security system, former YPD Chief James Perrotti told the News in February 2011. The improvements included the installation of 400 blue phones and a $2.5 million investment in outdoor lighting around campus.
Shortly after Levin’s inauguration, he made bridging the town-gown divide a top priority of his presidency — a contrast to the tenure of his predecessor, Benno Schmidt, who lived full-time in New York City rather than taking up residence in New Haven.
By 2010, Yale experienced less on-campus crime than its peer institutions on a per-student basis. According to figures reported by each college in compliance with the Clery Act, Harvard University saw roughly 4.7 crimes per 1,000 students, double Yale’s rate of approximately 2.3 crimes per 1,000 students.
University spokesman Tom Conroy said he does not believe Yale suffers an “image problem” as a result of the city’s crime situation. To combat any negative perceptions people might have about the campus and city, Conroy said the facts speak for themselves.
“It’s largely a matter of disseminating the facts or pointing people to credible sources of information,” Conroy said.
When concern about the city’s safety resurfaced last May after 24/7 Wall Street, a financial publication, ranked New Haven as the fourth-most dangerous city in the country, the University joined the city in pushing back against the rankings. The rankings were misleading, city and University officials said, as the publication used an outdated figure for the city’s downtown population, ignored suburbs adjacent to downtown New Haven with lower crime rates and did not account for the high influx of people arriving for work and nightlife.
As students returned to campus in August, Yale Police Department Chief Ronnell Higgins sent a campus-wide email calling the ranking “dubious.” And last December, Yale College Dean Mary Miller sent parents an email including a graph of crime statistics at Yale and peer institutions.
Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeffrey Brenzel said professional staff in the Admissions Office and trained student tour guides address questions about safety in New Haven in a “straightforward way,” as they respond to questions about all subjects.
“The straightforward answer is that New Haven is a vibrant city, so it has challenges like all cities do and continues to meet them in a positive and dynamic way,” Brenzel said.
In the past several years, a number of crimes have occurred close to Yale’s campus: two men were shot at Toad’s Place last March, a man was shot on High Street in front of two Yale fraternities last April and, in November, police pursued a car with shattered windows to Elm Street from Dixwell, where shots were fired.
Yet if admissions figures indicate confidence in applicants’ perception of Yale’s safety, then the University appears to be succeeding in overcoming New Haven historical reputation as a high-crime city. As the number of applications to Ivy League schools over the past decade have ballooned, Yale has kept up: This year, the College received a record 28,974 applications and posted an all-time-low 6.8 percent admissions rate.
When colleges are evaluated by U.S. News and World Report, crime rates do not factor into rankings, since this is not a major statistic on the minds of applicants and their families, said Robert Morse, director of data and research for the publication.
All colleges, Morse said, must deal with occasional violent crime on their campuses. U.S. News ranked Yale third this year, behind Harvard and Princeton, as it has since 2008.
“They all have their own highly publicized crimes that are outliers but not definitive of the campus environment as a whole,” he said of the colleges his publication ranks.
Five admissions experts and college guidance counselors interviewed said they think New Haven’s reputation for crime has little impact on high school seniors’ decisions to apply.
Jon Reider, the senior director of college guidance counseling at San Francisco University High School, said he has never seen a student “cross Yale off their list” of potential colleges because of New Haven’s crime rates. Chuck Hughes, president and founder of the college admissions consulting service Road to College, said the effect of crime on Yale’s application numbers is “marginal at best.”
Brenzel said feedback from the Admitted Students Questionnaire, which all admitted students are asked to fill out once accepted to Yale, has shown that New Haven’s public safety reputation is “good and much improved over the past 20 years.”
Robbie Flatow, a senior at Regis High School who was admitted early to Yale in December, said crime was the last thing on his mind.
“Nearly every aspect of Yale mattered more to me than the concerns about campus safety that I had,” Flatow said.
Simone Policano ’16, a senior at Hunter College High School in New York who was admitted early and will matriculate in the fall, said the negative reports she had heard about New Haven did not deter her from deciding to come to Yale.
“You have to be conscientious of general safety no matter where you go to school,” she said. “If anything, what I learned about New Haven spiked my interest in Yale’s intra-city community service efforts.”
Correction April 2
Due to an editing error, the graph in an earlier version of this article was mislabeled. It should read “Crimes on campus per 1,000 students,” not “Crimes on campus per student.”