“Is Yale a meritocracy?” I could see the gears turning in the minds of my classmates. On the one hand, the answer seemed obvious. Of course, Yale is meritocratic! For example, I had no family who were alumni, I did not go to a high school with a prestigious name and I could never have relied on social capital (or real capital) to influence my chance of admission. That someone could come to such a storied and esteemed institution from a dusty border town in Texas on the edges of the American empire is testament to how far Yale had come.
“Fifty or more years ago, the guy who had my job had it a lot easier,” Dean of Admissions Jeremiah Quinlan has said. “All he had to do was pick up the phone, call a select few schools, write down some names and the incoming freshman class had been decided.”
I laughed at the thought. Clearly, this institution was not built for me or for a lot of students who currently attend Yale, as we did not, attend these kinds of schools because of our race, economic status, or another such reason. But now, we’re Yalies. So aren’t those days behind us? Yale has democratized, right?
These “advances,” although certainly significant, are more cosmetic than the University cares to acknowledge. Think back to the first-year housing form: “If you have a relative who was a member of a specific residential college, you may opt-in or out of being in that residential college.” Or consider the report that the New York Times released last year that identified Yale as a school that has 69 percent of students from the top 20 percent of income brackets. Not so democratic after all.
Perhaps the most egregious emblem of the divide between the haves and the have-mores at Yale is the student income contribution. As one columnist pointed out in 2015, the roots of the student income contribution are prejudicial (“STERN: Skin in the game and eugenics,” Jan. 25, 2015). The author wrote that it “creates a social dynamic whereby poorer kids indirectly serve the wealthier ones — doing clerical work like filing papers or swiping IDs — just because they had the misfortune of being born into a family with less money.” The author further noted that although Yale eliminated the family income contribution in 2005, 56 percent of students on financial aid “reported ‘having to tap into family income and/or family savings to cover part of the student income contribution.”
I cannot help but think of my father pulling money out of his retirement every year to cover the portion of Yale’s price that is not covered by financial aid, of the frustration and guilt that I suffer as a result of his and the rest of my family’s selflessness — and of the sadness I feel when I consider what it could have been like to go to my state school on a merit scholarship. I should not have to feel this way.
But two organizations that I am involved with, Matriculate and A Leg Even, work to ameliorate this socioeconomic inequity at Yale. Matriculate connects students at Yale, Williams, Princeton and a few other schools to high-achieving, low-income students across the country. Through Skype meetings, students who have succeeded in the college application process help high school seniors through the college process, helping them work toward acceptances at colleges that they could never have even dreamed of attending — not because they were unqualified, but because they do not know of the opportunities. And A Leg Even is committed to making sure that students succeed once they’ve gone to these colleges.
I am where I am largely as a result of the situation into which I was born. But this does not mean I do not face challenges unique to my socioeconomic background. That’s why I became involved with these groups and why I believe so fervently in their missions. I went to two summer programs at Yale that absolutely bolstered my actual college application, whereas some high school students served by Matriculate would never consider applying to a Yale summer program, much less the actual college.
But Matriculate allows me to give back to students who are in a position I was once in, in the hopes that they will give back when they get the chance to do so, until a virtuous cycle is established for years to come. Embodying Yale’s commitment to service, the University should continue to support this program by virtue of its mission alone, but also because it does the University’s job of making Yale a more tangibly diverse place. This is our challenge moving forward.
Adrian Rivera is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .