“Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance-wheel of the social machinery.” So said Horace Mann, a reformer who believed in the power of education to level the playing field for American students.
But at Yale, as a direct result of our financial aid policies, the great equalization stops at summer’s door.
For upperclassmen, this unfair treatment is a reality you already know all too well. Around this time every year, the scramble for the perfect summer experience begins in haste. For many students of means, a wide range of opportunities will be at their disposal: traveling abroad, working for pay at a company, working for a stipend or even gaining valuable work experience through an unpaid internship. But for those of us on financial aid, Yale grants students only one option: working at a job so profitable that a student can earn over $3,000 in profits.
We know, in theory, the University requires the student income contribution because it expects students to have a stake in their education. But it’s worth considering how this deliberate decision by the Yale Corporation plays out in practice.
For background, the University requires every student receiving financial aid at Yale, regardless of income, to fork over a minimum of $6,400 a year. Of that $6,400, the financial aid office expects at least $3,050 to come from profits from a summertime job. This expectation is slightly lower for freshmen.
To clarify, this policy does not mean a student needs to find a job that will give her a $3,000 stipend for her work. Rather, Yale’s policy explicitly expects a student to be able to make enough money in one summer to pay for housing, utilities, transportation, food and other bills and then make another $3,050 on top of that — a laughably unrealistic feat accomplished by exceptionally few students each year.
So what can low-income students — who dream of participating in the kind of activities Yale promises on its admissions flyers — do instead?
We have a couple of options. First, we can do what I have done — something Yale promised we would never have to do: take out loans to cover the student income contribution. This, of course, is not inherently a problem. In fact, many universities across the country provide students with loans as an integral part of their financial aid awards. But forcing students at Yale to take out loans is a problem, particularly when our Admissions Office goes into low-income communities and promises otherwise. We sell ourselves as a loan-free alternative to state schools, only to later revoke that promise well after matriculation.
Alternatively, we can do what I have never done: take menial jobs close to home (hopefully rent-free) wholly unrelated to our academic or career goals that will nevertheless come close to adding up to Yale’s annual financial requirements. We can trade in the unpaid internship at the State Department for a paycheck at the grocery store or swap biomedical research for tips at a restaurant. Of course, there can be value in working such jobs, but the University is stripping half of the student body of that choice. As of a year ago, we can’t even afford to study abroad due to the elimination of International Student Award’s funding for the student income contribution.
And once you’ve given up one meaningful summer experience, the effect compounds with every year. Like so many scaffolding courses here at Yale, summer internships often build upon each other. One internship gives you connections that you can leverage to apply to a second internship the next summer. That line on your resume may be the reason you land an interview for your third internship the following summer, an experience that can often lead directly to a job after graduation.
The result is a slow but steady divergence in the Yale student experience and in the opportunities now afforded to students. Low-income students come to Yale already behind their wealthier peers. But whatever equalization occurs during the school year evaporates over the summer, forcing some students to clear $3,050 in profit every summer and allowing those not on financial aid to pursue career and academic interests through unpaid internships.
This bifurcation of the student body does not have to stand. If the Yale Corporation, true to its bylaws, is concerned with creating policy “fit and proper for the instruction and education of the students,” they must look more critically at the effect the student income contribution is having on students’ summer experiences as it prepares financial aid policy for the class of 2020.
Far too often, Yale is a follower of Harvard and other peer institutions when it comes to support for low-income students. But Yale now has a chance to be bold and lead its peers in the Ivy League. It is time, once and for all, to eliminate the student income contribution.
Tyler Blackmon is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. His column usually runs on alternate Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.