At 10 a.m. on Thursday, Feb. 24, 2005, 15 students arrived at Yale’s Office of Undergraduate Admissions to stage a sit-in. They were protesting Yale’s financial aid policies, which they saw as tightfisted. As a result, the office at 38 Hillhouse Ave. was closed for much of the day. Yale police officers were posted outside.

Around midday, a 150-person rally spearheaded by the Undergraduate Organizing Committee marched from Cross Campus to the Admissions Office, where they waved signs, led chants and played drums. Disappointed by noncommittal statements from University President Richard Levin, the UOC presented a petition with over 1,100 student signatures demanding more generous financial aid for Yale’s lower-income students.

With students adding to the pressure already created by Harvard’s and Princeton’s recent financial aid reforms, Levin announced one week later that the parental contribution for families with incomes below $45,000 would be eliminated and that families earning under $60,000 would face a reduced burden, a move that affected some 800 families. It was the largest change to Yale’s financial aid policy since 2001.

To boost efforts to recruit lower-income students, Yale launched a Student Ambassadors Program, to send current Yalies to promote the University in high schools, particularly in low-income areas where it may not be as well-known.

In 2008, Yale announced another round of financial aid expansion. The family contribution was eliminated for most families making under $60,000, and families making under $200,000 would also see a significant cut in their Yale bills. The self-help requirement for students was almost halved.

From $48 million in 2004–’05, Yale’s annual financial aid budget now exceeds $120 million. Yale also partners with QuestBridge, an organization that recruits high-achieving low-income students for need-blind elite schools, and provides 790 families earning under $65,000 a full financial aid package with no expected family contribution.

Despite a sharp drop in Yale’s endowment due to the financial crisis, expected student contributions from all sources have remained well below their pre-reform highs.

But student costs are now rising once again. For the 2010–’11 school year, the self-help component of the financial aid package was raised 15 percent over the preceding year. This year, self-help was lowered for freshmen but raised for upperclassmen, hitting $3,200 for the latter. The student income contribution, which students are expected to earn over the summer, has also increased, growing by $450 since 2009.

Without exception, students from low-income backgrounds interviewed for this article are effusive in their praise for Yale’s financial aid policies. They came from families where neither parent had been to college and high schools that offered few or no Advanced Placement classes and discouraged college counseling. In many ways, they say, they have adjusted well to a new academic and social milieu and distinguished themselves in their extracurriculars.

But the playing field is still not level. During the applications process, on campus and over the summer, lower-income students confront social, academic and financial challenges that they never anticipated.

The Admissions Gap

Alejandro Gutierrez ’13 grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Los Angeles, Calif. Neither of his parents had gone to college; “they had no idea what Yale was,” he says. But he went to a magnet high school for students pursuing careers in medicine, and he excelled there.

Gutierrez was guided in the college application process by a program for minority students that he attended the summer after his junior year, but he only applied to Yale once his counselor encouraged him to do so that October.

Though he had gone through a prep program, Gutierrez says he felt intimidated discussing his approach to applications once he got to Yale because of “how well-versed everybody was in the whole college application experience.”

In high school, Gutierrez adds, “I didn’t even know about early action.”

For many Yalies, the path to New Haven started well before high school. For legacies, it started before they were born. For those who attended elite private schools, it started with the highly credentialed teachers and counselors that pushed them to excel.

But most high-achievers never start down that path at all.

That’s the conclusion reached in a National Bureau of Economic Research paper published two months ago. In “The Missing ‘One-Offs,’” Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery draw from demographic data, admissions statistics and test scores to tell the story of where high-achieving students come from and where they end up.

The results can be disheartening. Hoxby and Avery estimate that the vast majority of high-achieving, low-income students don’t even apply to a selective institution of any kind; facing social and financial pressures and lacking information, many simply enroll at community colleges. Recruiting these students can be difficult. Though multiple sources can provide the contact information of high-achieving high schoolers to universities, it can be tough for a school like Yale to reach out to students who never thought of it as an option.

The current recruitment strategies of elite schools are “necessary, but probably not sufficient,” Avery says.

“We’re going to have to develop even more elaborate strategies … to try to educate students about the possibilities that are made available to them.”

When it came time to submit their applications, many current Yale students say they received little encouragement and had few reliable sources of information. Melinda Becker ’15, who hails from a small town in northwest Kansas, recalls that her high school counselor laughed at her when she told him that she was applying to Yale. Rebekah Stewart ’13 says she was told by her college counselor that QuestBridge was a scam. David Truong ’14 says his college counselor told him that his school district wouldn’t let him apply through QuestBridge.

Despite reforms, the number of Yalies from lower-income backgrounds has changed very little. In 2005, when the University’s financial aid policies were rewritten to sharply reduce or eliminate the family contribution from families earning under $60,000, the News reported that 800 Yale families fell into that category and would benefit from the new policy.

But instead of rising, the number of lower-income families with students at Yale has stagnated. Today, only 790 Yale families receive full financial aid.

Social divides

MacBooks. Dooney & Bourke bags. MoMA and the Met. These were the things that, she says, set her apart.

It didn’t take long for Shanaz Chowdhery ’13 to notice that people were different at Yale. “There was all this cultural capital that people seemed to have,” she says.

Where she was from, no one read The New Yorker on Sundays.

The differences weren’t just cultural, either: Chowdhery recalls her shock at seeing girls walking around campus with $100 handbags.

After she noticed that so many students here used Macs, she says, she looked up the price and couldn’t believe her eyes. Her classmates were lounging on Old Campus with $2,000 laptops.

Chowdhery’s father put her generic Windows laptop on a credit card. She believes he was paying it off her entire freshman year.

Even after being admitted, many students from lower-income backgrounds feel socially aloof from their wealthier classmates.

For Leonard Thomas ’14, feelings of difference and isolation were the largest obstacles to overcome as he transitioned from life in Detroit to being a student at Yale. “I felt poor here,” he says. “I didn’t necessarily feel poor in Detroit because I wasn’t the extreme case.

“I’m an extreme case of poverty here.”

David Truong ’14 still remembers what it was like to move into his freshman dorm. As he watched a suitemate buy a TV stand, a TV and an Xbox without hesitation, he cringed while paying for clothes hangers and plastic storage bins for his room. That first weekend when everyone was getting to know each other, Truong struggled with suite discussions about splitting the cost of a couch. The expectation that everyone would be contributing to the cost of furnishing the suite, while he thought it fair, was an adjustment.

That expectation of spending does not disappear after move-in weekend. Jennifer Friedmann ’13 says that Yale has a “culture around money.” “You were expected to be able to go out to dinner,” she said. “If I had a coffee date with someone, it was expected that everyone was buying coffee and that it wasn’t a financial burden for anyone.” But Friedmann did not want the fact that she was on financial aid to interfere with her ability to socialize with anyone on campus, regardless of socio-economic background. By shopping at thrift stores, she says she found it more feasible to “be a social person on this campus without making people feel weird about me being on financial aid.”

“Social gracefulness” is how she describes it.

Still, the social experiences of students on financial aid vary widely. Several say they have never felt restrained due to their limited means. While some students say that they notice class distinctions among Yale students when it comes to things like fashion, they describe such differences as subtle, not significant to their Yale experience.

“The divide exists if you make it exist,” says Steven Mendoza ’14. He was the first person in his single-parent home to go to college. After he graduated from high school, Mendoza was awarded a Gates Millennium Scholarship, which covers the part of his educational and living costs that his Yale financial aid does not.

“I haven’t had to worry about money,” he says.

Asked whether he felt a social divide existed between lower-income students and the rest of Yale, Mendoza’s answer was an emphatic no. “I have friends who are worth billions. I’m worth $2,000. I don’t see any difference in the way that they treat others who are the same as they are and the way they treat me,” he says. “I think Yale’s just a good campus at bringing people together.”

Academic differences

But for Mendoza and many other students, the difference between what they learned at school and the rigor their peers experienced at prep schools was immediately perceptible. Although the transition from high school to college is a significant one regardless of educational background, several students say they felt unprepared for Yale’s academic environment.

“My first thought was, ‘These kids are prepped to succeed in the Ivy League system,’” recalls Mendoza, a California native. “And I was like, shit. I was prepped to succeed in a UC.”

Becker still remembers being overwhelmed during the first week of Directed Studies, which she quickly dropped. “I didn’t know how to do close reading at all,” she says, recalling that her high school English class devoted three months to reading “1984.”

In English 114, Becker says, “I had written how they told me to write in high school, and I was like pretty proud of myself.”

Her teaching fellow told her work like that would earn her a D.

Many students from lower-income backgrounds were unaccustomed to being surrounded by hard-driving classmates. Truong, who went to a public high school in Texas, did not write a single academic essay in his entire senior year. He took English 114 his freshman fall, where he felt that his writing level was far below that of his peers. When it came to the sciences, Truong was placed into Chemistry 114, where he struggled. While Truong’s science background looked good on paper, he says his high school honors chemistry class was not very rigorous.

“I was not prepared for that level of academic intensity,” he said. His classmates, he said, were “much more intense than I expected compared to people at my high school.”

In a pattern other students from less prestigious high schools may find familiar, Thomas says he found it difficult to ask TAs and professors for help when he was having a difficult time academically his freshman year because he had not gone to a high school where one went to teachers to ask questions. He says he was taught not to speak unless spoken to.

“I felt like I had two humps to leap over: public school and poor,” he said.

Though Yale does offer extensive academic support services, it can be difficult for tutors and deans to overcome a deep-rooted academic disadvantage and a learned reluctance to ask for help.

Financial strings attached

Sometimes, even asking for that help from the resources Yale makes available isn’t enough — especially when it comes to money.

“A lot of my frustration freshman year was that nobody could tell me what to do, in terms of real-life stuff,” Thomas told the News. As a work-study student who is financially independent, he needed to learn how to file taxes. He had no home to return to over breaks because the transportation costs and the financial burden he would have placed on his family were too great, so he needed to figure out where he could live when the dorms closed and how he would feed himself. These were questions that Thomas felt his dean and FroCos couldn’t answer.

And other students from low-income backgrounds find it difficult to understand even the financial requirements Yale’s aid policies commit them to. Important details regarding their obligations are often masked by the use of sweeping terms like “no-loan policy.”

Yale widely publicizes the fact that the $3,200 self-help portion of a student’s financial aid package can be met by working only a few hours per week at the University’s student wages. Some students say that they enjoy the benefits of having an on-campus job — the extra spending money, the feeling of financial independence, the relationships forged with faculty and administrators. “I prefer to feel financially independent to the extent that I can afford to buy coffee, and I would feel uncomfortable if my external expenses were entirely covered by the University,” Friedmann says.

But much less attention is drawn to the $2,900 student income contribution expected to come from a summer job. Many students have had trouble making the combined sum on their own. So they decided to borrow what they needed.

Chowdhery is one of them. “When I graduate, I’ll have about $16,000 in loans,” she says. That way, Chowdhery adds, she might not be able to go abroad over spring break, but she can go out to dinner with her friends and order more than a glass of water.

“I traded taking out loans for a quality of life and not feeling insecure about never having any money,” she says.

According to institutional data, fewer students find themselves having to turn to loans. But while the percentage of students graduating in debt has dropped almost every year since Yale reformed its financial aid policies in 2005, the average debt burden of students who have taken out loans rose for the class of 2012, due to increased financial expectations faced by students, according to Caesar Storlazzi, the director of Student Financial Services.

While Storlazzi adds that financial literacy modules are being discussed by Yale administrators, no concrete decisions have been made.

A recent survey of 652 students conducted by the News shows that only 16 percent of students on financial aid find the application process very clear, and only 32 percent said they found it even somewhat clear. Most Yale students are expected to earn $6,100 per year between term-time and summer contributions, but several lower-income students we spoke to believed when they were admitted that they would have no financial obligations.

In detailed conversations, students talked about surprise bills and unclear charges. Chowdhery, who is on full financial aid, had an outside scholarship during her freshman year and currently works 10 hours per week. But it hasn’t been enough.

Abhinav Nayar ’15, a student from India, described a particularly confusing episode involving Yale’s financial aid office. In his freshman year, his financial aid award included the cost of insurance through Yale Health. Figuring he would save money in his second year, Nayar signed up for a cheaper Indian medical insurer. Upon learning that he had outside insurance, however, Student Financial Services reduced Nayar’s award by the cost of Yale health insurance. Instead of saving money, Nayar had wasted hundreds of dollars.

While they may have gotten 5s on their AP Calculus tests, many new students of limited means have little idea how to take charge of their personal finances in a way that wealthier students often do not have to.

Summer: All Work and Low Pay

Though they’re away from Yale, students on full financial aid cannot consider summer to be simply a vacation. They are expected to earn $2,900 over those 14 weeks. Many therefore seek paid internships. Lacking the connections and time of their higher-income peers, students on extensive financial aid have a harder time seeking and applying to better opportunities.

Applying for a fellowship to cover the costs of an unpaid internship or other summer activity is always an option, but many students from lower-income backgrounds cite several obstacles they have faced in attaining those fellowships.

Two years ago, during the fellowship application cycle, Stewart was dealing with her disabled father’s failing health and the loss of their farm in Alma, Ark., which meant she had to lend major financial support to her family. The fellowship application process was competitive, and it required research and planning that back then, she says, she did not have the time for.

Because she has not held an internship during her Yale career, Stewart feels behind her peers in the job search she is going through this semester as a graduating senior. She spent her first two summers during college keeping her family’s farm running until the business went under in December 2011. “What am I going to say to employers when they ask about my blank summers?” she asks herself. “Do I say, ‘Look I come from a very poor family, and we were trying to keep our farm afloat?’ No. I don’t want to lay my family’s problems bare to someone who is going to hire me.”

Stewart covered her student income contribution using loans instead of summer job earnings.

When she graduates, she will be in thousands of dollars’ worth of debt.

Those students who do devote their summers to a paid job find that making the money they need can be demanding. At the end of his freshman year, Dalton Carr ’15 found he had spent nearly $2,000. Between Yale bills and the costs he incurred living on campus, he knew he would need to make some serious money. At that point, though, he didn’t have much choice but to go back to the “dangerous” job he held the summer after he graduated from high school, a $10 per hour position in the oil industry.

Carr has spent the past two summers working at a refinery and an oil rig. It’s not fun, but it pays pretty well: Each summer, Dalton says, he netted around $2,500. That did leave another $400 to make up for — and, he says, he cut back to adjust for that amount.

* * *

Over the past several years, Yale administrators have made an unprecedented commitment of resources toward recruiting and welcoming lower-income students. “It’s not that the spirit wasn’t willing earlier,” President Levin told The Chronicle of Higher Education in 2008. “But now, the pocketbook is deeper.”

As deep as the pocketbook might be, there’s still a long way to go to before students from lower-income backgrounds get to live the same Yale experience as their higher-income counterparts.

Those students don’t have a problem working hard, they say. “But it would be nice to be able to get out of that,” Carr says. “To be able to look for more productive things.”

Arielle Stambler contributed reporting.