Yalies receiving financial aid are the recipients of something extraordinary, something unavailable to nearly anyone even a generation ago: a nearly free education. Yet that last word — nearly — is the operative one. Upperclassmen, even those on full financial aid, still have to pay this University $6,400 a year in “student effort,” factoring in both the term-time “self-help” and summer contribution (freshmen, meanwhile, pay $4,475). This means that anyone on financial aid will have to pay Yale $23,675 over their four years here — the equivalent of a brand new Chevy Camaro.
Does Yale need this money? According to the admissions office, roughly 50 percent of undergraduates are on financial aid. Thus, Yale raises approximately $16 million from the student effort. To put this in perspective, that number accounts for less than four-tenths of 1 percent of the amount the endowment increased last year alone.
In other words, the student effort is virtually meaningless to Yale, from a financial standpoint. For students, though, it presents a considerable hardship. Students who need to work have less opportunity to join more demanding, supposedly “prestigious” extracurriculars that can help land internships or jobs. In a YCC survey, more than half of respondents on financial aid reported that the student effort requirement limited their potential summer opportunities. Fifty-six percent of students reported “having to tap into family income and/or family savings to cover part of the student income contribution” — this, in spite of the fact that Yale eliminated the family contribution a decade ago. The YCC sent this report to the administration; they know these facts.
So, why keep student effort? The phrase used over and over again in justifying the existence of the student contribution is that students on financial aid should have “skin in the game.” As in, they should have a financial stake — even a small one — in their education.
There is a word for this argument: eugenic. This argument is predicated on the unstated assumption that rich kids deserve their easier lives, that they deserve to be at Yale more. This argument demands that poorer kids work because that is what poorer kids are supposed to do, while richer kids get a free pass. Even the vocabulary of “self-help” and “student effort” is stunningly paternalistic.
But let’s slow down for a moment. Some may argue that Yale is already so generous —reducing an education that can cost upwards of $60,000 to just a little over $6,000. Such an argument is beside the point. Just because Yale is generous does not mean that students should not push Yale to address flaws in the system. This is not ingratitude; it is common sense.
The News recently asked several senior administrators: If money weren’t an issue, would you eliminate the student income contribution? Not one gave a straightforward answer. They know they’re on the wrong side of this.
Personally, I accept the argument that work is rewarding. I currently hold one campus job; for the last two years, I held three. So I think Yale should make everyone work. Kids who don’t need aid, many of whom have never had to work, could actually benefit more from real work experience (and not some cushy internship).
Either Yale should force all undergraduates to work, or it should force none of them to do so. What it cannot do is force only the less wealthy kids to work. This creates a social dynamic whereby poorer kids indirectly serve the wealthier ones — doing clerical work like filing papers or swiping IDs — just because they had the misfortune of being born into a family with less money.
The eugenic argument is neither new nor surprising. Before Yale eliminated the parental contribution in 2005, administrators employed the same “skin in the game” fallacy. In a 2004 interview, former University President Richard Levin said families “ought to have a stake, however small, in their children’s education.” On Feb. 24, 2005, 15 students staged a sit-in at the admissions office, demanding change. Levin refused to meet with demonstrators. Yale administrators physically stopped some of the demonstrators from speaking with outside activists. Yet just one week later Yale announced that it was eliminating the parental contribution for families making under $45,000.
Apparently, simple unfairness doesn’t push the Yale administration to do what’s right; only two things do. The first is what our “peers” are doing. Yale eliminated the parental contribution for families making under $45,000 in large part because Harvard and Princeton had just beefed up their financial aid offerings. In 2008, Harvard eliminated the parental contribution for families making under $60,000; just one month later, Yale did the same.
The second thing that can spur change is activism. I know I sound like a broken record at this point, and I acknowledge that it’s easy to preach from within these pages, so I won’t go into detail here. But a loud, noisy show of passion might be one way to convince the administration to correct a profound unfairness.
Indeed, as long they accept the eugenic “skin in the game” argument, it might be the only thing that can.
Scott Stern is a senior in Branford College. His column runs on Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.