We talk about wealth a lot. When I hear “Canada Goose” I now think “overused Yale Daily News opinion piece trope” before I do “luxury parka” or “northern waterfowl.” There’s nothing wrong with the fact that the subject often comes up. Issues like wealth deserve our attention especially when the conversation starts to stale.
In pointing out socioeconomic disparities at Yale, we do some things well. We recognize, for instance, that money isn’t the only circumstance that contributes to one’s chances of admission. Many of us can point to an excellent teacher, our sandbox of a neighborhood or a serendipitous moment to show off — experiences not requiring but certainly correlated with some degree of wealth. According to the class of 2021 profile in the News, two-thirds of first-year survey respondents come from households with incomes of at least $100,000. We endured different hardships on our journey here, although we can’t completely disregard lucky breaks.
I can say I attended public school. It’s also true that my high school is more diverse than many private schools are, even if my Advanced Placement program isn’t. But if I stopped there, it would omit the fact that my life in my Arizona suburb is relatively uncomplicated compared to the life of the average public-school student applying to college worldwide. And even my peers who live in quiet cul-de-sacs like mine weren’t exposed to the same things that I was exposed to. This is entirely coincidental. For instance, the streets in my neighborhood are so wide and dry that on any given grocery run, the car next to mine is likely owned by Waymo and drives itself.
If the composition of the “middle class” of life experience at Yale skews upward, we should stop citing our best examples. That’s right — stop exalting empty symbols like the high schools we graduated from as symptoms of Yale’s inequality. I have up to 800 words per column to discuss my thoughts on socioeconomic disparities. My easiest targets are expensive private preparatory academies and big-city public schools that administer competitive admissions tests. We all know their names. I could highlight their double-digit matriculation rates or five-digit tuitions. Few would challenge how lopsided those statistics are compared to national averages. We’d end up no further in the conversation than the day before.
Solutions to inequality at Yale and beyond are absolutely unclear. I don’t know a practical one myself. But fixating on the outsized presence of well-known secondary schools at Yale simplifies the issue to just that — as if merely accepting an incoming class that matches the socioeconomic diversity of the United States as a whole solves the problem. Yale’s student body rarely, if ever, reflects the population of the country. Yet today no one complains about large swathes of students who don’t deserve their place here. Parents send their children to prep schools in no small part because those schools accomplish their stated purpose: to give a good education.
Yale’s incoming class’s incomes will continue to lean toward the higher end of the distribution curve, and this is not because of malicious or greedy biases in the admissions office. The sad reality of access to education worldwide implies that of two identically amazing students, the advantage goes to the one with better means to exhibit her talents in a need-blind process. Perhaps one day, Yale will take the risk of rejecting qualified financially comfortable applicants in favor of their equally deserving, less institutionally proven peers in the name of improving socioeconomic diversity. Until we conceive a perfect application review process, however, I’m reassured by Yale’s effort to fight the gap with generous financial aid. Admissions is enough of a crapshoot as is.
We are here now, though, exposing and questioning the lack of socioeconomic diversity in our student body. No matter our situation at home, we can all probably point to some blessing or figure in our lives others didn’t have. I’m not claiming that every Yalie’s backstory amounted to similar hardships or good fortune. Nor am I saying we should discount the asymmetrical burdens Yalies face daily on campus because of wealth disparities. I’m insisting that if we believe Yalies are Yalies by merit, we shouldn’t frontload our dialogue with the prevalence of symbols of affluence. Given the chance, no student would be faulted for choosing a different high school with smaller class sizes, newer textbooks or more established extracurricular activities. Even if the magic solution removing every Yale applicant’s barrier to making that choice lies outside of changing the University itself, we aren’t absolved of our responsibility: Volunteer to teach. Run for office. Debate education policy in the dining hall. Just don’t cherry-pick when you do.
Zhengdong Wang is a first year in Morse College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .