When Leonard Thomas ’14 got to Yale, he realized that the kids at parties didn’t know how to dance.
Back home in inner-city Detroit, people had moves. They showed up to parties tipsy, and then they danced, and they danced well. At Yale parties, people mostly stood around holding cups, talking drunk. If they did dance, it was uncoordinated, just fist-pumping to music Thomas didn’t know. Sometimes they didn’t dance at all, making out instead.
But Thomas just wanted to dance. At Greek parties and big Yale dances, he was disappointed. Nobody was dancing the way people danced in Detroit.
It wasn’t just his dancing that made him feel different. To the best of his knowledge, Thomas is the only student from inner-city Detroit in the class of 2014. On move-in day, he realized he was probably the only one of his suitemates not paying any tuition.
Some people knew he was poor, but nobody seemed to mind that he’d spent his high school years on food stamps. Nobody judged him for what he couldn’t afford.
But people cared that he was too loud. Thomas talked at soapbox volume about whatever he wanted. In the dining halls, people turned around and stared.
At home, he hadn’t needed to guard his volume or his words. Now, among politically correct peers who used “inside voices,” he realized he had to be careful.
In July 2013, the city of Detroit — “pretty poor and pretty black,” in Thomas’s words — filed for bankruptcy. The New York Times said it was “ailing” from decades of mounting debt.
It was in this sick city, made sicker by the recession, that Thomas had gone to school. He had a 4.0, but thought he could use a leg up in the college admissions process. So he applied to be a scholar in the program offered by the Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America (LEDA), a summer program that helps minority students develop academic and leadership skills. At LEDA’s summer institute at Princeton University, which Thomas attended before his senior year of high school, he took SAT preparation classes, a college writing class, and a leadership seminar.
When he accepted Yale’s offer of admission in 2010, it was because he was finished with being poor. Before leaving, he told his parents that he “wasn’t trying” to come back.
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If the American dream were a novel, that novel would be about class. It’s a novel Horatio Alger is thought to have written in 1867 with Ragged Dick, the story of a poor bootblack whose hard work polishing shoes earns him a spot in the middle class. Alger’s novel argues that, in America, you can get anywhere, from anywhere. You will make your way prosperous, and you will have good success.
Since opening in 1701 exclusively to white, male members of the clergy, Yale has taken tremendous strides to make itself accessible to all students, regardless of their economic background. Like some other Ivy League colleges, Yale meets 100 percent of demonstrated financial need. More than half of Yale students receive need-based aid directly from the University, which has an estimated financial aid budget of $120 million.
But the family income distribution of Yale’s student body is hardly a reflection of income distribution in the United States as a whole.
In 2012, Yale awarded financial aid to 56 percent of students, nearly all of whom come from households making $200,000 or less. Following the logic of an article published last year in the Harvard Crimson, it is safe to assume that the 44 percent of Yale students who do not receive financial aid — either because they did not apply, or because they were ineligible — come from households with a yearly income of more than $200,000.
According to the U.S. Census, only 4 percent of American households have a combined family income of over $200,000. Yale’s price tag currently stands at $57,000 — the highest it has ever been. For more than half of American families, one year of Yale tuition would comprise their entire yearly income.
Still, the number of low-income students matriculating at Yale has risen steadily in recent years, in part due to an overhaul to the financial aid policy in the 2007-2008 year. Yale families earning less than $60,000 are now completely exempt from tuition, and families earning between $60,000 and $120,000 are only expected to contribute up to 10 percent of their total income. These changes, along with increased recruitment efforts in disadvantaged cities and schools, are aimed at attracting more low-income students to Yale.
For many of these students, a Yale admissions letter begins a bright chapter of a story they have been trying to write anew. But the challenges faced by low-income students across America do not disappear once they arrive on campus.
Yale is aware that students from lower-income backgrounds face a difficult adjustment to the college’s academically rigorous environment. Last year, partly in response to columns in the News by Alejandro Gutierrez and Michael Magdzik, two low income students who described their struggles in the classroom, the University introduced the Freshman Scholars at Yale (FSY) program, inviting select students from low-income backgrounds to participate in its inaugural summer session. FSY is designed to help students from disadvantaged backgrounds find their academic footing. Over five weeks, students take an introductory-level English class for credit, learn about resources that will prepare them for intensive coursework, and connect with students from similar backgrounds.
But despite Yale’s numerous financial and academic safety nets, the specter of class persists. It manifests itself in the differences between what students of different economic backgrounds can afford: a $1300 Macbook Pro, ubiquitous around Yale seminar tables, costs nearly half of the student income contribution.Likewise, students’ ability to travel during academic breaks can be a strong indicator of income. Class also manifests itself in less tangible ways — how students think, talk, and interact with others.
Some low-income students, particularly those who are the first in their families to attend college, feel that they lack the vocabulary and experiences to relate to students from middle- and upper-class backgrounds. However, the disconnect goes both ways: upper-income students may follow a path to Yale well trodden by previous students of privilege, but they, too, can have difficulty relating to students from backgrounds unlike their own.
College culture is something that anyone new to campus, regardless of her class, must learn to navigate. But while clubs and cultural houses unite students with shared interests and identities, no such social space exists for students to discuss how their experiences have been influenced by class. And while race, gender, and sexuality have become common discussion topics on campus, conversations about money and class —across income brackets — are awkward, and avoided.
The social gulf between students from low-income families and Yale’s predominately upper-middle-class culture is wide, and it is growing wider as more students from poorer backgrounds make their way to Yale. In this year’s Freshman Address speech, titled “Yale and the American Dream,” University President Peter Salovey said that while Yale is “a great equalizer,” it cannot erase the discrepancies that arise between the experiences of students from different financial circumstances.
Salovey said that talking about socioeconomic status is “one of the last taboos” among students at Yale. However, a flurry of class-related articles and campus events suggests that the stigma may be fading.
Most of the 36 students interviewed for this article — students from across the economic spectrum — are eager to start talking about class. But what will be the result? Could talking about class be the first step toward closing the social gap?
Halfway through his senior year, Thomas still isn’t sure.
“Talk, talk, talk,” he said, leaning forward on a Cross Campus bench. “What is talk, if you’re not going to act upon it?
Before being initiated into Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE), new fraternity members recite “The True Gentleman,” a creed for good behavior that has been an SAE tradition since the 1930s. The speech describes a man “whose conduct proceeds from good will and an acute sense of propriety.”
“A true SAE gentleman,” it states, “does not make the poor man conscious of his poverty.”
While many members of Yale’s SAE chapter are well-off even when compared to Yale at large — out of 19 respondents to a recent News survey, 11 reported an annual household income of over $300,000 — there are also members who place lower on the socioeconomic spectrum. Many members of SAE and other fraternities on campus view their diverse memberships as a significant strength of Greek life.
The survey, which was distributed by email in September and included questions about socioeconomic class, collected 151 anonymous responses from students in Greek and other social organizations. One SAE respondent, who reported his family’s annual household income as $10,000–$49,999, bluntly articulated what he had found useful about making relationships with students unlike himself: “The wealthy get access to the unique insights that a harder upbringing bestows: street smarts, hustle, upward drive. Just as the wealthy learn from the ‘code of the streets’ playbook, the less fortunate can observe and learn the nuance of interaction among elites, in a generally equal atmosphere. This is crucial knowledge for them once they enter the job market and begin to improve their socioeconomic standing. The outside world is far less welcoming and forgiving.”
SAE vice president Samir Sama ’15 said that SAE places tremendous importance on learning about brothers’ pasts and even matches prospective members to older members from similar backgrounds who help them through the rush process. According to Sama, no topic is awkward in the SAE house. “But our emphasis is on personality, not class,” he said.
“I don’t see what there is to gain in talking about it,” he added. Whether or not students feel comfortable in social circles like fraternities, Sama said, is dependent on whether or not they are comfortable with themselves. For some students, “bringing class into focus can be more awkward than leaving it alone.”
David Truong ’14, who is not in a fraternity, understands what that awkwardness is like. Both his parents are blue-collar workers: his mother works in a Texas factory and his father is a cashier. He said that when he tells new friends what his parents do, the typical response is “Oh, cool.” Afterwards, there’s a lull.
“People just don’t know how to respond,” he said. “It’s not insulting, they’re just unfamiliar.”
David Berg ’71 GRD ’72, a clinical professor of psychiatry, has firsthand experience with students’ discomfort with talking about class. In the residential college seminar he co-teaches with Howard Dean, “Understanding Politics and Politicians,” he leads an annual “money class” aimed at getting students to discuss the impact of class on their college experience and life in general.
Students are divided into three groups according to self-reported family income, and are asked to discuss in their income groups how their socioeconomic status has influenced their time at Yale. Afterwards, Berg and Dean bring all the students together to share what each group has discussed.
In an environment in which only merit and personality are supposed to influence relationships, the notion that our college experiences are also influenced by our social class — an aspect of our identity over which we have no control — is often unpopular and unwelcome. During the exercise, students tell Berg that they feel uncomfortable, and some view his questions about family income as inappropriate.
Berg said that some students think that the professors are manufacturing class divisions within their community, as opposed to what he and Dean are actually trying to do: provide students with a space to discuss the real differences between them that originate as a result of socioeconomic class.
According to Berg, students share a “collective denial” that money makes a difference at Yale. Not much has changed since he attended Yale in the 1960s, he said: students still feel pressure to act as though differences in income don’t mean anything.
But by the end of the class (in some cases), or months or years later (in others), student responses to the “money class” are overwhelmingly positive. Students say it’s the class they remember most from the entire semester.
Berg believes relationships are among the most important aspects of attending Yale. But in order to establish deep connections at Yale, students need to learn about each other — which can only happen if they are willing to share.
“It’s about telling as much of the story as you can,” Berg said. “And part of the story is about money.”
Cory Combs ’14 came back from his FOOT trip freshman year smelling awful, but so did everybody else. Then he cleaned up and changed for the Timothy Dwight freshman parents’ reception. Standing alone in his blue jeans among boys in ironed shirts and suit jackets, overhearing a father talking about his yacht, he grew anxious that he might be out of place.
“I felt like I didn’t even speak the language,“ Combs said. “I heard conversations about summers in Switzerland, and I had worked in a factory.”
Combs is a first-generation college student from rural southeast Ohio. In the spring of his sophomore year of high school, he was asked to interview an engineer for a class project. He sent out a few emails to professors at colleges he knew about, if only vaguely. One of them was Yale. He had heard of the Ivy League before, but he thought it included Oxford and Stanford.
Combs received a reply from Yale molecular biophysics and biochemistry professor Enrique De La Cruz. After a three-hour phone discussion, De La Cruz followed up with Combs and encouraged him to apply to Yale. In November of his senior year, Combs got his high school’s first-ever “Yes!” from an Ivy League college.
When he got to Yale, Combs worried that he lacked the “proper” educational and economic background characteristic of Yale students. At first, he kept silent about where he was from, fearing that he would be stigmatized.
Other low-income students described similar reluctance to talk about their backgrounds.
Ian Akers ’14, who hails from a blue-collar family in southwestern Virginia, said he often “felt like a redneck” among students from higher-income families. As a freshman, he would keep quiet in social settings, worried about saying something that would be acceptable back home, but might upset his new peers.
Chris Tokita ’14 arrived on campus in the fall of 2010 with a shaved head and tattoos. At first he thought it was funny when a few fellow students started calling him a “ghetto Asian.” At Tokita’s high school in Los Angeles, “ghetto” was a playful term, used by his friends who came from similar economic backgrounds. But people at Yale used it differently.
“Here, it’s a condescending and class-oriented term, and it’s pretty derogatory,” Tokita said. “That’s what drove me to be more quiet about my background.”
Combs thinks his initial discomfort went largely unnoticed. “Frankly, I’m a tall, white male,” Combs said. “Coming here, I don’t think people had any correct preconceptions about where I was really from.”
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Certain identities, like race, are visual. Socioeconomic status is often not. But students across the economic spectrum said that it has an undeniable effect on social interactions. It can be tricky for students from lower economic statuses to connect with peers with whom they do not identify.
Some described stalling at parties when asked if their high schools were public or private. Some declined dinner invitations, pretending they were busy rather than admitting they couldn’t pay the bill. Ericka Saracho ’14 laughed off a friend’s comment about a purple shirt she seemed to wear out all the time. It was one of the three formal shirts she owned.
Many low-income students described changing the way they talked or acted in order to blend in at Yale. The practice, Thomas said, is known as “code-switching.”
Sociolinguists use the term to refer to how members of one culture speak differently in the company of another, like when some African-Americans use different grammar when among whites in formal situations. Code-switching also applies to people who adopt the language of a different class in an often-subconscious attempt to disguise their own background.
Uncertain of how he fit in with his upper-class peers, Combs tried to exude confidence. Beneath it, however, his insecurity about his background lingered. “I was trembling the whole time,” he said.
Combs now believes that socioeconomic status, as much as any other facet of experience, is a critical and formational part of his identity. He realized that by keeping silent about his background, he risked hiding part of himself.
About a month into his freshman year, Combs found adult mentors on campus with whom he felt comfortable opening up. His boss, who was also from a low-income background, helped him realize that others at Yale had overcome similar difficulties related to income and class. Speaking with his mentors about his anxiety helped him to clear the “emotional hurdle” of his unfamiliarity with Yale culture and to gain confidence that he did, in fact, belong.
But Combs worries that he may have been lucky. Other students from backgrounds like his have had a tougher time.
Over the course of his freshman year, Thomas approached various campus support systems seeking help adapting to Yale. He told his freshman counselor and his dean that he was having trouble. He explained his situation to a Peer Liaison at the Afro-American Cultural House, who, while also black, was not from similar financial circumstances and did not provide him with adequate guidance. Ultimately, he felt that the mentors to whom he had access lacked the experience and training to understand the difficulties of his adjustment to campus.
Although Yale lacks a space specifically designated to foster dialogue about social class, nevertheless, by senior year, most low-income students have found communities in which they feel comfortable talking about their backgrounds.
Often, these communities are made up of students with similar economic circumstances.
Truong, the senior from Texas, said that many of his closest friends share his income bracket. Knowing that these students are also receiving financial aid has made it easier for Truong to open up about how class and family income have influenced his time at Yale.
“It’s a shared experience — they get it,” he said.
For many members of Sigma Chi, the fraternity itself provides a social space for discussing issues that might be sensitive elsewhere. Javaughn Lawrence ’14, a QuestBridge scholar who moved with his family to Florida from Jamaica in search of academic opportunities, says he identifies with many of his fraternity brothers; indeed, the thirteen Sigma Chi respondents to the News survey come from backgrounds that are equally distributed across the socioeconomic spectrum.
Members of SAE and the coed Fence Club also say that their off-campus organizations allow members to form closer friendships than they might ordinarily form on campus, and thus to feel more comfortable sharing details about where they are from.
Yale’s Freshman Scholars program, in addition to providing academic preparation, gives 30 low-income students the opportunity to interact with others from similar backgrounds before beginning freshman year. By creating the program, Yale has undoubtedly made progress in addressing the needs of low-income students, and many upperclassmen interviewed wished that they had been able to participate. Tokita, who said he spent his first semester feeling like he had no one to relate to, thinks the program would have helped to ease his transition to campus culture.
Only time will tell whether or not FSY will make a significant difference in the social experience of low-income students, a segment of Yale’s population that Truong refers to as “the experimental group.”
“The administration hasn’t yet figured out completely how to cater to our needs,” he said, though he is pleased that it is working to develop solutions like FSY. “The simple answer to whether we should talk about it is yes. The complicated answer is how.”
Students Unite Now (SUN), a campus social justice group, has been trying to get the University to commit to starting a formal conversation about class. Last year, SUN circulated a petition to create a center that would give support to low-income students and provide a space for all people to come together to discuss class-related issues.
“Everyone at Yale, rich or poor, needs help figuring out how to talk about money and class,” said Berg, the psychiatry professor. When asked to propose a solution, he offered the possibility of a voluntary discussion group run through the residential colleges. Its focus would be not the plight of one class or another, but the ways that money impacts all students’ lives in and outside of Yale.
But Thomas, the senior from Detroit, said that being lower class continues to carry a negative connotation on campus, which might lead some students to feel hesitant to talk about where they are from. “Some people don’t want to be reminded of it,” he said. “They just want to fit in.” And for Thomas, conversation alone is not enough.
“It took so much for me just to be able to walk on Yale’s campus,” he said.Talking is fine, he added, but it must lead to increased accessibility to resources at Yale for students from lower-income backgrounds.
“You don’t just want to survive,” Thomas said. “You want to thrive.”
President Salovey beamed as he welcomed the 1,360 applauding students crammed into Woolsey Hall for the freshman assembly. It was a welcome they had waited a long time to hear, he said, and it was an honor for him to deliver it.
Twelve percent of those students will be the first in their families to graduate from college. Yet Salovey had more than just congratulations and greetings for Yale’s newest.
“I worry about whether the American Dream is still possible and whether education is still the best ‘ticket’ to socioeconomic mobility,” he said.
This can be the generation, he said, that ensures that “the dream of a better life” is possible for students across America and all over the world. But it remains to be seen what role Salovey and the administration will take to ensure that Yale continues to be “a great equalizer” for today’s generation.
Ian Akers, the senior from rural Virginia, will graduate in the spring with a degree in economics from an Ivy League school. More than four years have passed since he first arrived in New Haven.
Still, Akers said, “there’s so many things about Yale culture that I just never got.”