For a university whose administration claims to reject cost as a barrier to entry — and whose student body leans toward progressive policies — Yale does an awful job recognizing the unique challenges faced by its lowest-income students.
Shopping period is a great example. One difficulty we all face is narrowing a long list of potential courses while keeping up with all of them. In many courses, work is assigned from the textbook as early as the first class.
For some Yalies, this means running to the Yale Bookstore after the first day of classes to pick up books. For low-income students, that means having to choose between vastly marked-up Barnes and Noble prices and shopping around online for much less expensive used options. In the meantime, they risk falling a week or more behind in course readings and assignments.
The difference between these two choices is significant. One classmate I spoke with estimated a $300 gap between purchasing used books at Yale’s bookstore and opting for online used booksellers and waiting for shipping. Of course, even expedited two-day shipping options are hardly two-day when the Yale Station is involved.
For some faculty, $300 might be a rounding error on a research grant. For some students, $300 is a dinner with the family at The Study’s Heirloom restaurant. For others, $300 might represent an entire semester in discretionary spending. The difference matters.
Of course, there’s an easy fix: Yale should simply standardize a practice that some of its instructors already follow and mandate that the first two or three weeks of course readings are posted on Canvas. It’s the least Yale could do, particularly for those for whom textbook costs are a significant burden.
In addition to textbooks are the infamous “course packets” — stacks of course readings and worksheets printed, almost monopolistically, by TYCO. A semester course pack for an introductory French course, for example, costs around $70.
Unfortunately, some instructors at Yale don’t even know the cost of these packets. As it turns out, more than a few instructors are unaware that students pay money for those course packets. One of them asked me: “Don’t you just pick them up?”
No, we don’t just pick them up. We pay inflated prices for them because we have no other choice and do so hastily during shopping period so we don’t fall behind. And for working low-income students that little course packet is worth several hours of an on-campus or even off-campus job.
Again, there’s an easy fix: Yale instructors should post their course packets online so that students can print them however they want. The 150-page course packet that comes to $70 at TYCO costs $18 at any normal Yale printer. Maybe that difference seems trivial to some, but for others it represents several weeks in spending money.
If Yale wants to enroll low-income students through tuition-based financial aid — as it should — it must re-examine the costs associated with being a Yalie beyond the financial statements.
A financial aid award says one thing. But the relentless worry about having enough, the constant anxiety over being able to keep up and the real concern about whether one financially fits in to the day-to-day beat of Yale says something very different. That real concern begins promptly when freshmen arrive in August to a full day of formal events and dinners when one (simply must!) wear suits and ties. The subtle messages embedded in many Yale “traditions” boil down to what one must have and who one must be.
Our peer institutions have begun to address these disparities. It was Harvard, not Yale, that initiated the “start-up grant” component of financial aid, which smartly provides students whose annual household income is less than $65,000 an additional $2,000 per year for necessities like computers and winter clothing. Only after Harvard announced that program did Yale think the grant was a good idea.
But what about other costs that even this kind of grant, which disappears quickly, can’t cover?
What about getting home, for instance? International students receiving financial aid receive a travel grant which covers transportation to and from Yale during breaks. But domestic students — even those who live across the country —receive nothing. For those students, the few hundred dollars in travel expenses alone can be the reason they’re unable to visit home during breaks.
And, of course, meals in New Haven during those times are on their dime.
A commitment to economic diversity is hardly compelling if low-income students are left behind once they come to campus. If Yale wants to move away from its old-boys-club days and towards a truly inclusive Yale, it must account for what it costs to be here. Until then, our most under-resourced classmates will continue to feel the same financial otherness that fuels Yale’s reputation outside our bubble as an elite, out-of-touch bastion of privilege.
Emil Friedman is a freshman in Silliman College. His column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .