A few months ago I was sitting in a barber chair when the conversation turned to college. A woman who worked at the shop asked me where I was headed in the fall, and I told her I was going to Yale.
Her reaction was a little different than what I usually get. She hesitated and then spoke a little quieter, more like a mumble.
“Remember that Yale kids still put their pants on one leg at a time, just like the rest of us,” she said.
Her voice wasn’t particularly angry and she probably didn’t think much of her remark, but it stuck with me. I had chatted with her plenty before, but for the first time, she began to speak to me with a slight skepticism, scorn and perhaps even jealousy that many working-class Americans express towards elitism. It occurred to me that by being a Yalie, I’d now be viewed as an elite. And that bothered me in a way I hadn’t experienced before.
See, I believe firmly in the basic bargain of America: the notion that people who work hard and play by the rules should be able to get ahead. I’d like to think that that’s how I made it to Yale. I took advantage of my public high school’s resources, spent hours studying and ultimately earned my place as one of the handful of students in my high school class accepted to an Ivy League school. My family has no connection to Yale and we wouldn’t be able to give any significant donation to the school anyway. So while, yes, I was privileged in having a supportive family and a great public education, I saw my admission as a representation of that basic bargain in action.
Yale educates some of the best and brightest students on Earth, and exposure to that kind of raw talent is one of the reasons I came here. But it also has a tradition of serving the elite. In the early 1900s, the University educated almost exclusively wealthy, white men. Yale College only began admitting women less than 50 years ago. Today, even though the admissions office prides itself on welcoming classes diverse in every sense of the word, a full 50 percent of Yalies still pay full tuition and only about 60 percent come from public schools. Roughly three-fourths of accepted students grew up with household incomes above $80,000, while only about a third of all American households fall into that same bracket.
Still, Yalies graduate as future leaders in nearly every industry imaginable: government, medicine, academia, business. Yale Law School is one of only two schools that have graduates currently sitting on the Supreme Court. In 2015, about two-thirds of graduates started their post-Yale lives earning more than $50,000 per year — that’s more than the income of at least fifty percent of American households in this country.
Therefore, the question is whether the purity and egalitarianism of the basic bargain becomes blurred at a school like Yale. As Yalies, will we be afforded privileges because of the school we attend instead of the work we do? If so, is it deserved?
A defining theme of this presidential election is that Americans are tired of elitism and privilege: the idea that the folks at the top play by a different set of rules than everyone else. That woman in the barber shop reminded me that Yale embodies elitism and privilege. Yale is one of the few places that produces those folks at the top. In that sense, Yale is different than most other colleges.
I feel the same way today I felt almost exactly a year ago when I told my history teacher that while I certainly believe in Yale intellectually, I’m not sure if I believe in Yale morally yet. In other words, academically Yale stands in a league of its own. But the bastion of privilege that Yale represents, the notions of stratification that going to a school like Yale might exacerbate — these are issues that will take some time getting used to.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget what that woman at the barber shop said. It’s a reminder that despite the exclusivity of Yale, we all share a common humanity. Above all else, I hope Yale doesn’t let me forget that.
Emil Friedman is a freshman in Silliman College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .