“Cosplaying as a different class character”: life as a low-income student at Yale
Students reflect on income inequality at Yale in light of statistics about Yale College income distribution published in January’s financial aid lawsuit.
Tenzin Jorden, Staff Photographer
At Yale, whose undergraduate population is overwhelmingly above the national income average, Suzanne Brown ’23 noticed a phenomenon in which many higher-income students play down the extent of their wealth, while some lower-income students also face pressure to “cosplay as a different class character.”
Brown used clothes shopping as an example. She might be told by her mother, she said, not to wear a particular pair of jeans because “they look old and you don’t want people thinking you’re poor.” Wealthier students, on the other hand, might outwardly pretend to have less money, thrifting clothes that they could afford to buy new.
Brown described it as students often “cosplay[ing] as a different class character. Logan Roberts ’23 echoed Brown’s observations, suggesting that skewed income distribution at the University results in students from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds trying to emulate their idea of “middle class”— a standard which does not represent the experiences of most students on campus.
“I think there’s this issue at Yale where all the really wealthy kids try to act as though they’re not wealthy and all the kids who are low-income try to fit into this very clearly elite community,” Roberts, who is the president of the Yale First-Generation, Low-Income Advocacy Movement, said. “So we’ve arrived at this fake middle class that doesn’t actually exist, but everyone’s pretending to be in and it’s just uncomfortable for everyone involved.”
A lawsuit filed in Illinois courts in early January alleged that Yale and other top universities violated federal antitrust law by colluding to cap financial aid offers. The lawsuit emphasizes the affluence that accumulates at these schools and points out the disproportionate number of wealthy students that congregate on their campuses.
The antitrust suit cited statistics describing the class composition of Yale College undergraduates.
“Yale’s undergraduate study body is generally wealthy and privileged,” the suit reads. “The median family income of undergraduates is $192,600; 19% of undergraduates come from the top 1% of the income distribution, and 69% come from the top 20%; and only 2.1% come from the bottom 20% of the income distribution.”
But these numbers apply to students born in 1991, students who would have graduated from Yale around 2013.
In the intervening years, the number of students from the bottom 20 percent of the income distribution has increased precipitously. Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeremiah Quinlan noted that the number of students eligible for Pell Grants — which are awarded to students depended on their demonstrated financial need and the cost of attendance for their University — has grown to about 20 percent over the last decade and that Yale has consistently expanded its financial aid assistance.
“The admissions office strives to bring to Yale promising students from every background,” Quinlan told the News. “Creating a student body rich in diversity of experience, identity, background, and belief is essential to realizing essential educational benefits for undergraduates. Socio-economic diversity is an important dimension of this project.”
Roberts told the News that he was unsurprised by the statistics included in the lawsuit. Statistics about income distribution at Yale had already been publicly available online, Roberts said, although he thought that low-income students tended to be more aware of them than the rest of the University population.
“What I’m grateful for, though, is the fact that this lawsuit is bringing that statistic to a wider audience because I think it’s important that people are conscientious of that disparity,” Roberts said. “Especially for folks who typically don’t have to think about wealth, I think it’s important that they be reminded.”
Universities included in the lawsuit, Roberts suggested, have developed prestigious reputations because they have historically been attended by wealthy students. Although that reputation is changing as time goes on and Yale’s demographic evolves, Roberts said, Yale students should take these statistics as a reminder that income distribution at Yale is not representative of American society as a whole.
As of the 2020 census, the median household income in the United States was $67,521.
Although three of the students interviewed by the News emphasized the generosity of the University’s financial aid offerings, they described a range of challenges beyond paying tuition that come with being first generation, low-income students.
Brown recalled an incident in which a professor forbade the use of electronics in class, despite the fact that printing course materials was prohibitively expensive.
When Brown asked to use an iPad in the class to access the course materials — an option she explained was much less expensive than paying for printing — the professor suggested that doing so might alienate students who could not afford similar devices.
“People are trying so hard to accommodate low-income students, but it’s from a wealthy perspective,” Brown said. “If you understand the lower-income experience, you know that we rely on PDFs and we rely on Google Drives with textbook files. Everything is digital so we can avoid buying physical items. If you don’t have that experience, or don’t understand that, you’re not going to, but it’s about being willing to listen to someone’s experience.”
Karen Li ’23 is the co-president of Yale’s QuestBridge Scholars Network. QuestBridge is a nonprofit organization that matches low-income students with top schools. Li told the News that income inequality at Yale is “very apparent” to her. She explained that she and her FGLI friends discuss the anxiety they feel when spending money unnecessarily, which contrasts with the way her wealthier peers sometimes make purchases on impulse.
“It seems like they have an endless bank account,” Li said.
According to Brown, social stratification on campus occurs not only because some students on campus are wealthier than others, but because their economic backgrounds have led them to grow up with experiences that other students cannot afford.
Matthew Elmore Merritt ’24 pointed to dining as a potential source of social segregation, explaining that because he cannot afford to eat out in New Haven, he instead eats mostly in Yale’s dining halls. As a result, he has ended up with many friends from similar backgrounds.
Brown described how many of these experiences that many students take for granted as part of college life — expenses like purchasing a daily cup of coffee or taking a trip over break — might lead to the social alienation of those that cannot afford them.
“My first year, a lot of my friends were going on vacation to London or Paris and I couldn’t go because I couldn’t afford it,” Brown said. “That was definitely an experience that I missed out on. I think FOMO is taken to a more extreme level when it involves experiences that revolve around money.”
Luke Couch ’23, the other co-president of the QuestBridge Scholars Network, told the News that he has a “well-paying job” that enables him to afford books and travel. But, Couch explained, the need to work at all is the greatest delineation between low-income students and their wealthier peers.
Couch added that holding a job can take time away from academics or socializing, and that it is not always easy to find student jobs.
Viktor Kagan ’24 told the News that in his hometown of Philadelphia, even his wealthiest peers had some understanding of the general struggle of the low-income people around them, “being from the poorest big city in the U.S.”
“Yet, here, I have met and been in class with people who I cannot relate to at all — not a fault of theirs or mine, but more so that we live and study within a system that perpetuates their wealth and segregates us in experience, wealth, and reality,” Kagan wrote.
According to Kagan, many of these students fail to understand the issues facing lower-income students, believing instead that most Americans are financially secure.
Brown concurred, adding that although some of her wealthy friends tried their best to empathize with FGLI students, they would never be able to understand her experience.
“Being around other friends that truly understand what it means to feel limited because of money, but also just live a different lifestyle because of the ways that we were raised, that’s a sense of community,” Brown said. “Anyone from any affinity group, if you read the number that you’re only 2 percent of the population, especially in an insular community like Yale, that’s going to feel alienating in some way.”
Groups like YFAM, Roberts said, exist to combat this sense of social alienation by providing FGLI students with a sense of community.
However, Roberts noted that the perspectives of FGLI students at Yale are not universal and can vary depending on other elements of their backgrounds and identities. Roberts, who comes from a rural and predominantly white community in upstate New York, explained that his experience was likely very different from students at Yale from urban communities, or those mostly populated by people of color.
“Building communities around just first generation and low income identity already poses a number of challenges,” Roberts said. “But I think more fundamentally, it’s just that there are common threads that people are able to use to connect with one another. Maybe the most important common thread is that we are not wealthy and elite like the rest of the institution is and that alone gives us reason to want to be together.”
Although Merritt told the News that attending Yale can be challenging for everyone, he emphasized that it was “definitely harder for low income kids,” in part because they were faced with myriad expenses associated with student life.
Merritt added, for example, that traveling back and forth from Yale posed a routine challenge for him because it meant paying for flights both ways.
“That definitely dissuaded me from applying to many schools that were far away,” Merritt said. “Being from a small town in Alabama, where college education isn’t really encouraged, it makes sense that most folks in my circumstance don’t even end up applying to Yale, let alone coming here.”
Li pointed to the price of textbooks, which can accumulate at the beginning of the semester at great cost to students. She suggested implementing a textbook exchange program which would mitigate the financial and environmental impacts of purchasing new books.
Associate Director of Writing & Tutoring at the Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning Karin Gosselink emphasized the stress that money puts on FGLI students.
“Navigating these daily decisions about finances and trying to figure out Yale’s hidden curriculum — the unwritten rules, expectations, and processes by which students access all aspects of their Yale education — places additional emotional, cognitive, and time burdens on first-generation and low-income students that can never be fully eliminated by university support,” Gosselink wrote in an email to the News.
Gosselink directs the Academic Strategies Program, and she supervises the Yale College FGLI Community Initiative alongside Dean Burgwell Howard.
All of the students interviewed told the News that the University would need to make major cultural and structural changes to alleviate many of these burdens.
Though Li and Couch both said they think Yale broadly serves low-income students well — specifically citing the University’s financial aid offerings — the students recommended changes. Li especially called for Yale to allocate more funds toward making the school more affordable.
“Instead of spending exorbitant amounts of money on over-the-top holiday dinners, Yale could afford to lower the fanfare a bit and invest more in its students, such as the low-income students who don’t qualify as those in most need but would sincerely benefit from more aid,” Li said.
Other students want to more directly address Yale’s cash-lined culture.
Roberts, who serves as the YCC Financial Accessibility Policy Director, reiterated his support for the YCC resolution, passed this November, which called for the elimination of legacy preference in Yale’s admissions policies.
“[The financial aid lawsuit] sort of proves that the legacy admissions initiative was timely and relevant because the whole issue at the heart of this lawsuit is the fact that wealth and status [are] playing a disproportionate role in determining whether or not people are able to enroll,” Roberts said. “I think that the elimination of legacy admissions remains important. I think that Yale just doing what they say they do, which is maintaining need-blind admissions, is very important.”
A YCC Senator, Kagan added that eliminating legacy preference would be the minimum the University could do to “level the playing field” for FGLI students.
According to Merritt, the University needs to make cultural changes in its willingness to listen to FGLI students about the issues they face most urgently and the policy changes that would affect them the most directly.
“The administration could take the time to genuinely listen to us, not just make a small student panel and have conversations with us where they explain all of their policies, which is what often happens,” Merritt said. “You ask questions, they explain why the current system is bad, and you go about your day. There’s no real conversation there. It’s just an information session.”
According to Merritt, the University becoming more open to engaging with students and making structural changes would benefit students from all backgrounds.
Couch similarly emphasized how all students — regardless of their wealth — are served by the inclusion of low-income students on campus.
“Increasing accessibility allows both [low-income] students and the community at large to benefit from having their perspectives and backgrounds incorporated into the campus culture,” Couch said. “I am a strong believer that students from backgrounds such as mine have just as much to offer and share with the university as anyone else.”
Tuition at Yale costs $77,750 for the 2021-2022 academic year.