On Tuesday, Yale announced its new policy governing student athletes’ abilities to “enter into agreements and engage in activity with external parties that provide compensation in exchange for use of their [name, likeness, and image].” This effort — a response to a Connecticut law which took effect on September 1 — is a victory for student athletes and advocates for compensating NCAA athletes, who, unlike members of other student organizations, are often specifically used as marketing tools for universities to advertise to potential students, rally alumni support and donations, and sell event tickets and merchandise.

Of course, objectors are always present. Many of these are in poor faith. But some address compelling questions: Student athletes outside the Ivy League often receive merit scholarships for their work, so isn’t that a form of compensation? Or, is it not significant that other non-athlete students also perform work on behalf of the university, running organizations large and small and contributing to its culture and academic reputation? 

These inquiries get at the heart not just of what it means to be a student athlete, but what it means to be a student, point-blank. At Yale, students frequently complain of overwork and exhaustion and Yale’s insistence upon wellness culture — most obviously modeled by the Good Life Center of Silliman College, where students can take breaks from studying by sitting in bean bag chairs or raking through a giant, no-phones-allowed sandbox — rather than responding to student demands about mental health resources or excessive workloads. And yet, even when students are afforded a meager three-day reprieve from classes as in our upcoming October Recess, we receive reminders like the one from Dean of Student Affairs Melanie Boyd on October 13, which contradictingly emphasizes that students should “enjoy the recess for what it is: a break,” even as she reminds students in the previous sentence, “I hope the recess will give you some time to catch up on reading and assignments.”

It’s not that this email is especially malicious — it isn’t. Instead, though, it serves as an indication that Yale’s attempts at mental health resources serve as band aids rather than concrete changes. It also, more interestingly, offers more insight into the student half of the student-athlete compensation controversy. In some ways, student-athletes are not just workers because they’re athletes. They’re also workers because they’re students. Like an employer, Yale controls many students’ access to healthcare resources, significantly impacts students’ mental health, controls students’ access to housing and transportation, controls student vacation and time off even to the point of penalizing students who take medical leaves, and ultimately relies on student labor.

These phenomena have become more apparent since the beginning of the pandemic, with undergraduate students being housed in the Omni Hotel in downtown New Haven because of housing shortages, and a shortage of graduate students forcing popular lectures to institute enrollment caps for lack of teaching fellows. Those of us who were Yale students when the pandemic forced students online in March 2020 remember that students were also denied access to mental health resources after the University went virtual. There are also the perennial problems — that of the Student Income Contribution, the hourly limitations of 20 hours per week on student employment, and the fact that many students, especially student athletes, are forced to choose between extracurriculars, academics and financial security, often not even achieving that balance.

Still, it’s important to recognize that the distinction between undergraduate labor and workforce labor is less a difference in scale but a difference in kind. The division between physical labor and intellectual labor is largely superficial — at its heart, students still contribute to the University as laborers, even if that labor is in developing skills rather than possessing them outright. And Yale still uses student labor in many contexts aside from the quintessential student job or even the expected role for graduate students as teaching fellows. Undergraduates often also run courses, by serving as graders on examinations, peer tutors for departments, and undergraduate learning assistants (ULAs). Quite literally, Yale depends on students in order to function.

Of course, graduate students are often older and later in their careers. They’re also, for a multitude of reasons, more invested in the University as an employer given that many of them will continue to be employed by universities throughout their careers. But these differences are small when compared with the similarities and when accounting for the fact that both undergraduate and graduate students sacrifice alternative career options to attend universities, and for many of those students, attending college does not necessarily pay off. The National Center for Education Statistics estimates that the average cost of a bachelor’s degree has increased by 59 percent since 2000. The Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that wages for people with a bachelor’s degree have increased by five percent over that same period.

Of course, recognizing these similarities is only part of the problem. Yet, for many, it is the first hurdle to recognizing the student’s role not just as a consumer of university output or intellectual production, but as a laborer and producer worthy enough to ask the University for more. While declining admission rates enable elite universities to view students as expendable, it remains that students already contribute across the board, and the victories for student athletes allow us to reassert what’s possible when those contributions are recognized.

MCKINSEY CROZIER is a senior in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at mckinsey.croizer@yale.edu.

McKinsey Crozier is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. Her column, 'Left and Write,' runs on alternate Fridays.