Seeing as this is my last column for the News, I had been planning to write something anodyne and unprovocative, a meditation on speaking one’s mind, perhaps, or a tribute to all the people and professors who make Yale great in spite of itself.
But I’m not going to do that.
Instead, I want to end by thinking about the promise of an elite education and why it is denied to so many — about the boasts and bromides and banalities that allow so-called egalitarians to mask their privilege within an academy that exists chiefly for their benefit.
Don’t worry: This won’t be another shut-up-and-be-grateful tirade against financial aid activists or virtue-signaling progressives. I actually agree with much of what’s been said in opposition to the student income contribution, which the preponderance of evidence suggests is balkanizing Yale along class lines. The problem is not that these activists portray the contribution as unfair — it is — but rather that their jeremiads are part of a self-defeating ideological program that sustains the very evils it decries.
That program, advanced by Students Unite Now, most cultural houses and the occasional News editorial, basically proposes we fix corporate greed through a vast, viscous bureaucracy made up entirely of corporate middlemen. In keeping with today’s intersectional credo, calls for financial aid reform are almost always paired with calls for more graduate unionization, more sensitivity training, more diversity initiatives — in other words, more administrators and more money.
This was true in 2015, when Students Unite Now threw its support behind Next Yale’s demands; it was true the following year, when they launched a photo campaign explicitly linking the student income contribution with countless other injustices.
And it remains true now, in the day-to-day thick of campus life, as America’s young aristocrats demand every imaginable comfort and indulgence from an obliging administrative class. Those demands lead quite naturally to increasing corporatization, which in turn leads to higher tuition prices and fewer subsidies for low- and middle-income students. A consistent reform program would focus on cutting bureaucratic sinecures and reducing expenditures — to use a Trumpian metaphor, on draining the swamp. Instead, reformers have bloated the swamp with all manner of vestigial cronies and curiosities, most of which do very little except create problems, often expensive problems, for other apparatchiki to solve.
The result is a system whose chief beneficiaries are the very rich and very poor. Park and 5th sybarites get to experience four years of hedonism under the watchful eye of student life professionals, while the underprivileged receive a passport to the middle class in exchange for diversifying Yale’s demographic profile. The losers are everyone in between: middle- and lower-middle-class students too rich to be offered a full ride and too poor to foot the bill on their own. Numerous loopholes mean the so-called “sliding scale” slides very quickly once your family income hits $50,000, and although Yale “does not expect students to take out loans,” those expectations are frequently confounded by unforeseen economic realities.
The debate over the student income contribution is therefore something of a red herring insofar as the policy does not actually keep anybody out of Yale. By contrast, lackluster aid for the middle class discourages many students from applying in the first place, leaving behind a rather unrepresentative sample of the indigent and well-to-do. This may be one reason elite colleges have such difficulty cultivating intellectual variance: Their financial aid regimes subsidize the main voting blocs of the Democratic Party to the exclusion of ordinary Americans.
Of course, some middle-class folks do beat the odds and make the most of their time here. But in my experience such students — especially white ones — are the most resentful of institutions notionally dedicated to improving financial aid. The Black Students Alliance, the Yale Women’s Center and the LGBT co-op have all endorsed efforts to eliminate the student income contribution, citing its disproportionate impact on minorities. Yet these same groups have also demanded ever more deans and deanlets and administrators to advance their multiculturalist vision — mediated mostly by the cultural centers — all of whom cost money that could have gone towards financial aid instead. It doesn’t help that the most vocal activists tend to be fairly privileged themselves and enjoy a certain degree of social capital as a result: Nobody likes to be lectured about their role in oppressive power structures, especially when the people doing the lecturing have all the power.
The class dynamics of Yale thus parallel the class dynamics of the nation. Identity politics and a sprawling kludgeocracy have made meaningful reforms almost impossible, and because of that, the tensions which fuel identity politics and kludgeocracy have steadily worsened. Marxian analyses have their limits, to be sure; it’s quite possible I’ve overemphasized the role economics play in what is at heart an ideological struggle between two rival visions of the University, each with its own share of partisans.
But as every political theorist knows, ideas do not exist in a vacuum. Class, that vexing and incurable specter, will always shape our politics when we least expect it to.
Especially if, as is often the case, our Jeremiahs work for Goldman.
Aaron sibarium is a senior in Timothy Dwight College. This is his staff column for the News. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .