Yale currently has one of the most generous financial aid policies of any university, but students have recently called upon the administration to eliminate the “student effort” portion of financial aid packages — the amount recipients of aid are expected to contribute towards their education. While some administrators and experts argue that this contribution is fair and manageable, students on full need-based aid claim that the quality of their Yale experiences is suffering due to the expectation.
At 8:30 a.m. every weekday morning, Isiah Cruz ’17 leaves his dorm room in Ezra Stiles. He grabs a quick breakfast, walks to the Office of Career Strategy and sits behind a desk on the third floor.
Four hours later, he takes the elevator back down to Whitney Avenue and goes to class.
Cruz said he sends a portion of his paycheck to his parents in New Jersey to help them pay rent. For summer job interviews, Cruz had to spend more of his money on a suit. Other discretionary expenses soon grew beyond his student income, and this semester, he was forced to take out a loan.
As one of the nearly 2,800 recipients of need-based financial aid at Yale College, Cruz is expected to contribute toward his education. For the 2014–15 academic year, the “student effort” financial aid contribution — a combination of a student’s summer earnings and income from a term-time job that they must put towards their term bill — was between $4,475 and $6,400. The student effort is composed of a “student self-help” amount, intended to come from term-time work and set at $2,850 for freshmen and $3,350 for upperclassmen, and a “student income contribution” of $1,625 for freshmen and $3,050 for all other class years that is intended to derive from summer work.
While administrators note that these amounts can be fulfilled by working an average of nine to 11 hours a week at the campus minimum wage of $12 per hour, many students argue that this calculus neglects a broad range of exogenous costs associated with their financial status, and ultimately, negatively impacts their Yale experience.
Though Cruz admitted he enjoys many aspects of his job at the OCS, he said the significant time commitment, coupled with these extra-academic expenditures, have given him a less fulfilling Yale experience.
Of 40 students interviewed who are on financial aid, the overwhelming majority said they mostly enjoy the work they do on campus to contribute to the funding of their education. But 20 students said they would not have a term-time job if it were not for the self-help expectation, and 35 said they are unable to cover the self-help solely with their campus income.
“I would say that students who do work 12 or more hours a week, regardless of financial aid, have a different Yale experience as a consequence of spending so much time working,” said Emma Goldrick ’17, who has jobs at the Peabody Museum of Natural History and the Silliman College Dining Hall. “Anyone who spends that much time working is unable to fully take advantage of other Yale experiences and extracurriculars, or just spend adequate hours studying for their classes.”
In response to protests against the student effort, which has been steadily increasing for the last three years, the University froze this amount for the 2015–16 academic year, despite the fact that the Yale College term bill is set to increase by 4 percent next year. Historically, the student effort has risen alongside the cost of tuition.
Though students and Yale College Council representatives were pleased with the University for addressing concerns about the student effort rising to an unmanageable level, some still argue that the expectation should be eliminated entirely. However, the responsibilities of Yale’s financial policy remain contested by those who benefit most from it.
“Technically, we shouldn’t be this picky,” said Grace Chiang ’15, who once worked three jobs to help cover her student effort. “They’re giving us money, a lot of money, but the question is: What standard of living are we supposed to be expecting and demanding? Am I supposed to be counting pennies? If so, then everything is fine. But am I supposed to be enjoying Yale and having the same Yale experience as all of my other peers? If so, then we’re falling way short, but I’m not sure if that’s a reasonable expectation of the financial aid office.”
AFFORDABILITY, NOT EQUITY
Yale College is among a small handful of schools with no-loan financial aid policies for its students and need-blind admissions for all its applicants, setting it apart from the other roughly 6,000 colleges in the world.
Students, professors and experts interviewed acknowledged how comprehensive and unique Yale’s financial aid policy already is. For the 2014–15 academic year, Yale provided $116 million in need-based financial aid, with the size of the average need-based scholarship at $42,200. For families making less than $65,000 each year, parents are expected to contribute nothing towards their child’s education.
Still, despite its generosity, few would disagree that the University’s financial aid policy remains imperfect.
To suggest improvements, the YCC held a financial aid town hall last November. The following January, the YCC produced a formal report on financial aid, and in March, the group Students Unite Now protested in Beinecke Plaza. Throughout this time, a common recommendation emerged: the elimination of the student effort so that students on financial aid can have “the same undergraduate experience” as those who are not.
But administrators said the University’s financial aid policy is not necessarily meant to act as an equalizer for the student body.
“The goal of our financial aid program is to make Yale accessible and affordable to all students who are admitted,” Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeremiah Quinlan said. “It’s a policy built on individualized packages — not to create a singular Yale experience.”
Others, however, argue that a University with large financial resources has responsibilities that extend past affordability.
Cruz said providing access for low-income, high-achieving students is a noble cause, but he added that financial aid should be comprehensive enough to give these individuals the “full Yale experience.”
“It’s one thing to let these types of kids into the school, but it’s another to make them feel comfortable and allow them to thrive as other kids do,” Cruz said. “You can make it affordable and you can give them a Yale degree, but they’re getting a watered down experience of the University.”
Mark Kantrowitz, student financial aid expert and senior vice president and publisher of Edvisors.com, an education finance website, said financial aid policies should be fair to all its beneficiaries. There are roughly 100 colleges that claim to meet the full financial need of their students, Kantrowitz said, but they each redefine financial need by including components like a student effort or student income contribution. He added that it is problematic for universities to advertise in such a way, because there are students who really cannot afford to meet their student expectation.
“They may already be working because they’re low-income and they’re a primary wage earner for their family,” Kantrowitz said. “And then Yale comes and says they need to work an additional 15 hours a week to pay for Yale. So at the very least, Yale should consider waiving that work expectation or minimum student contribution for students who have zero [expected family contribution].”
COMPLICATIONS IN THE NUMBERS
However, available data on student employment and borrowing counter the stories of adversity told by students.
“The data we review tell us that we are doing well in meeting the commitment to make Yale affordable for all students,” Quinlan said. “No system is going to address completely every student’s individual or family situation. We hear loud and clear that some of our students are dealing with individual cases of unusual stress and hardship. So where does Yale stand between the data and anecdotal evidence? I honestly think that reality is somewhere in the middle.”
Director of Financial Aid Caesar Storlazzi said that for the 2013–14 academic year, the average wage rate for freshman students on financial aid was $12.94 an hour, meaning that these students could meet their self-help contributions by working an average of 8.3 hours per week over the academic year. For upperclassmen on aid, the average wage rate was $13.49 an hour, meaning these students could meet their term-time expectations by working roughly 9.4 hours per week.
But according to on-campus employment data from the last two years, students have been working far fewer hours each week.
Based on the data, between 57 and 65 percent of the students on financial aid held jobs over the last three semesters. During these three periods, students receiving financial aid worked, on average, less than five hours per week, with the average fluctuating between 4.4 and 4.8. In contrast, between 36 and 38 percent of students not on financial aid worked during these periods. This cohort of students worked between 3.1 and 3.4 hours on average.
And because there were more than 8,000 available positions listed with the Student Employment Office last semester, these numbers do not seem to stem from a paucity of jobs.
Additionally, while many students on financial aid do not end up covering their entire student effort by working, the majority of these students also do not take out loans to fill in the gaps. More than three quarters of the class of 2014 who received financial aid from the University graduated debt-free. Twenty-four percent of graduates on financial aid took out loans.
According to the data, the University’s financial aid policy seems almost without fault.
“It’s clear that students are fulfilling their student effort not simply by working on campus or taking out loans,” Quinlan said. “Whether through merit scholarships or some other source, many students are meeting their contribution by working less than five hours a week.”
For students like Cruz, Chiang and Goldrick, however, the numbers do not reflect their reality.
Chiang said her three jobs occupied so much of her time that she could not join as many extracurricular clubs as her friends and had to limit the number of hours she spent studying. After studying abroad, her semester in Italy left her with significant debt.
She said she considered withdrawing for financial reasons last fall. She was able to remain at Yale by borrowing money, but still works long hours each week in order to pay the remaining debt and cover day-to-day side expenses.
“In theory, if everything else was covered, I guess I could meet the [student effort] part of my financial aid,” Chiang said. “But I still have other things to pay for in addition to the student effort, and that’s why I have to work 16 hours a week.”
Cruz echoed Chiang’s remarks, saying that students receiving full financial aid grants often have other payments to make.
YCC representative and financial aid report coauthor Tyler Blackmon ’16, who is also a staff columnist for the News, argued that just because students are not working significant hours each week to meet their expectation does not indicate that students do not struggle to fulfill the student effort.
“I could probably try to work 15 or 16 hours a week if I wanted to, but I decided that I want to pass my classes and get good grades,” Blackmon said.
While students interviewed did not suggest the University had incorrect data, they called for more focused research on the topic. Specifically, students on full financial aid packages suggested their higher working hours were averaged out by other students with less financial aid.
Several students interviewed who do work hours closer to the University average said they tap into other resources to cover the student effort.
Josh Young ’17, who works in Bass Library for roughly four to six hours a week, said his job is not enough to cover his expectation. In theory, he could add extra hours to earn the needed amount, Young said, but it is difficult to find the time to do so while balancing his job with class and extracurricular activities. He added that his parents cover the rest of the student effort for him. However, Young said, he really likes his position at Bass and generally does not consider it to be a burden.
Additionally, Holly Robinson ’17, who works seven hours per week as a reading tutor at New Haven Reads, said she primarily uses student loans to cover her tuition and the student effort. But Robinson also said that she thoroughly enjoys her job, which allows her to work with younger children in education.
Still, other students criticized the student income contribution — the amount they are expected to fulfill over the summer — as a significant stressor and constraint on the types of positions they can pursue.
Nickolas Brooks ’17 said that enrolling in a summer session program instead of taking paid employment last summer put him at a deficit. The summer program cost him over $2,000 in student loans, but he was still responsible for meeting his student income contribution when he returned to Yale, Brooks said. He added that he is now working three jobs to make up the money he was unable to earn over the summer.
AN AGE OF REFORM
In February 2005, 150 students held a rally outside the Office of Undergraduate Admissions, in protest of the University’s financial aid policy. Fifteen students held a sit-in inside the office from 10 a.m. until 8 p.m., demanding to speak with then-University President Richard Levin about financial aid policy reform.
Shortly before these activist efforts, Harvard had announced that it was making changes to its financial aid and eliminating the parental contribution for families making under $40,000. Princeton had long ago made changes to its financial aid policy, replacing all loans in undergraduate financial aid packages with scholarships in 2001.
Although the students were sent out with citations, and their immediate calls for change were unheeded, Levin announced reforms to Yale’s financial aid policy less than one week later, and eliminated the parental contribution for families with annual incomes below $45,000. The University also reduced the expected contributions for families making between $45,000 and $60,000 at the time.
These changes were followed by a series of comprehensive financial aid reforms in 2008, in which the University eliminated the parental contribution for families making less than $60,000 annually, in addition to reducing the overall cost of a Yale education for families making under $200,000.
Former Princeton Director of Financial Aid Don Betterton said Princeton was influenced to change its financial aid policy when the university began to fear that it was becoming unaffordable for low-income students.
“We worried that we were becoming more of a place for only wealthier kids, and so that was a really big deal to get things in motion,” he said. “We asked what we could do to make our financial aid programs more generous, to attract more kids and to give kids we were already giving money to more money.”
But, according to Betterton, Princeton has always thought that a student work contribution is a good idea. He said he was surprised that students at Yale have taken issue with the student effort.
Adam Muri-Rosenthal, dean of Adams House at Harvard, was also surprised to hear that Yale students have voiced concerns about the student effort. Anecdotally, Muri-Rosenthal said, he has not heard anything from Harvard students about feeling burdened by their student work expectations.
In October, the University of Chicago eliminated the term-time work requirement for Odyssey Scholars — students generally from families making less than $90,000 per year — and guaranteed paid summer internship or research opportunities for these students after their freshman year.
However, while this policy is generous to students coming from families with lower incomes, the University of Chicago is not need-blind for international students, and gives out less grant aid than Yale. The average grant aid given to a student at the University of Chicago for the 2012–13 academic year was $29,333, compared to $41,400 at Yale.
While Stanford announced in March that it would be expanding its financial aid program by altering the family income thresholds for aid, Stanford Senior Communications Official Lisa Lapin said Stanford students on financial aid are still expected to contribute $5,000 annually toward the total cost of attendance.
Quinlan described Yale’s financial aid reforms in 2008 as a broader set of changes meant to “significantly alter” the way students approach their Yale education. Ever since, Quinlan added, the focus has been on retaining the affordability of the parental contribution.
“Over the past few years, Yale has prioritized keeping the parental contribution levels as affordable for families as possible, and this is reflected in our lower net cost than pretty much every other institution in the country,” he said. “We’re one of the few institutions that are need-blind for international students. There are ways we could change our financial aid package to reduce the student effort portion. But if that means we could only admit wealthy international students or raise our parental contributions for families making $100,000, I would certainly not recommend those changes.”
Every academic year, student effort contributions total nearly $16 million.
Although students said this seems like a small amount when compared to the size of the University’s $23.9 billion endowment, Quinlan said Yale does not have endless resources from which to draw.
“Any institution has to consider trade-offs when it is making decisions about financial aid policy, and Yale is no exception,” Quinlan said.
Scott Weingold, cofounder of College Planning Network, said that while the University could simply eliminate the contribution, “$16 million is still $16 million,” requiring restructuring in other areas of the budget.
Ronald Ehrenberg, director of Cornell’s Higher Education Research Institute, said that although Yale’s endowment recently grew, increases in its size have to pay for faculty hires, building renovations, pension increases and a litany of other costs, so not all of that money is available to go toward the financial aid budget.
“These issues are going on at every university in the country,” Ehrenberg said. “You can’t think of financial aid separately. At Cornell we worry about how our financial aid costs affect our ability to hire new faculty and renovate buildings and our ability to keep tuition increases down.”
Yale could have increased the parental contribution for students from wealthier families, or changed another one of the parameters to receive the same amount of money from a different group of students, Yale School of Management professor Roger Ibbotson said.
Sixteen million dollars is not an insignificant sum, he added, and eliminating the student effort would probably result in Yale having to charge everyone else more.
“It requires courage to spend more from your endowment, because there’s always the worry that you’ll need that money in the future,” Kantrowitz said. “But Yale can afford to do this. The question is whether Yale should do what everyone else is doing, or try to take a leadership role in college affordability.”
Provost Benjamin Polak could not be reached for comment Monday evening.
University President Peter Salovey said it is difficult to predict the future regarding financial aid policy at Yale, but noted that one of Yale College’s chief priorities now, and in the future, is to ensure that a Yale education is affordable to all students who are admitted.
“I can only reaffirm that one of Yale College’s chief priorities now and in any future I can see is to make our education affordable to all of the students we admit,” Salovey said. “Each year the relevant offices look at many factors to assess how we are doing in meeting this priority — seeking to understand what our students’ and families’ experiences with financial aid are; whether we are being clear, transparent and helpful in our communications, or where specific problems, challenges or confusions might be; looking at current statistics on net cost, debt levels and student jobs, and much more.”
But Blackmon was frustrated with what he described as a lack of Yale leadership in financial aid policy reform.
Administrators, Blackmon said, seem to think that the conversation about financial aid is over.
“Their vision of Yale is that we started out at this every exclusive Ivy League institution that was not accessible to anyone, and eventually we started letting in different types of people — minorities, women, low-income students,” Blackmon said. “So we had a natural progression toward affordability and accessibility. But they think we’re finished, that we’re done. They think it’s been a really great journey. Part of this is just shaking them and saying that we still have further to go.”