One of the two times my mother has made me cry was a Sunday afternoon the fall of my junior year of high school. Flipping through one of the glossy college brochures that had started arriving in the mail, I made a wistful comment about how green the hills looked and how red the bricks were. My mother’s only response: “Well, you better find a scholarship or something because otherwise you’re going to University of Toledo. It’s free for you.”
Having that option at all is a privilege, of course, but going to the state school a mile from my house felt like a failure. I agonized over AP and SAT scores and spent hours scouring colleges’ websites. Eventually, I discovered that perhaps my best chance was going somewhere like Yale. I made it my goal to do so, and then one afternoon the strains of Yale’s fight song filled my living room’s still air.
I never thought of myself as disadvantaged until I got here. But by Yale’s standards, my family qualifies as low-income, making considerably under $100,000 a year when 52 percent of undergraduates’ families make $200,000 or (much, much) more. My family has never had a subscription to The New Yorker, and I had never heard of Iowa Young Writers’ Studio until I discovered that many of my new friends had already met each other there previously. I was never purposefully made to feel bad for my lack of “cultural capital,” but it was still very clearly that: a lack. These complaints come from a place of incredible privilege. Yet, incredible privilege is the norm at Yale, and my feelings of inadequacy came to define much of my freshman year.
This experience is not unique, nor is it particularly awful. But the fact that I, as a white, middle-class female from an intellectual background, continue to feel these separations so acutely goes to show the influence of socio-economic class on everyday life at Yale.
This Monday, changes to the student income contribution were announced at a town hall on financial aid. Starting next fall, the student income contribution — summer earnings that students are expected to pay Yale — will drop by $1,350 for students with “the highest financial need,” and $450 for everyone else.
These changes are inadequate. The numbers remain prohibitive for a number of reasons, but what is more troubling is the reasoning behind having a student income contribution at all.
As the News reported, last year the administration told students that getting rid of the student income contribution was not a budget problem. This directly contradicts Director of Financial Aid Caesar Storlazzi’s remarks on Monday. It is hard to believe that eliminating the student income contribution would be much of a financial burden to Yale, especially when the student income contribution significantly impacts only those who have “the highest financial need” or something close to that.
What concerns me is the most commonly cited justification for the student income contribution: low-income students need to have “skin in the game.” It implies that without financial accountability to Yale, we would not have a “proper” appreciation for our education. This is both ridiculous and offensive.
The “skin in the game” rhetoric forces students to prove their dedication monetarily while limiting their ability to take advantage of the opportunities Yale “gives” us. We do not weigh our extracurriculars against a job that will help us pay for coffee. We weigh them against paying for Yale, and against sending a little extra money home.
Our peers are not financially accountable to Yale; their parents are. The student income contribution implies that lower-income students do not inherently have as much at stake in their Yale education. We know exactly how lucky we are to be here because we created so much of that luck. How many people whose parents pay the full tuition — some with a little strain and others without batting an eye — can say the same? Belittling our stakes belittles our right to be here. It forces us to prove in hours and in cash that we deserve to be here, when others assume that from birth.
I am not so naïve as to complain about any inequality that might exist at Yale — it comes with the package of an elite institution — but the problem with the student income contribution is that it unnecessarily contributes to that inequality, both financially and psychologically. Not all students have an equal opportunity to come here, but Yale should work to give those who do an equal opportunity to succeed.
Julia Hamer-Light is a sophomore in Silliman College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .