Navigating financial aid as an FGLI Student at Yale’s graduate and professional schools
What does the graduate school experience look like for first-generation, college students at Yale?
Yale Daily News
Recent years have seen groundbreaking changes for affordability at Yale’s graduate schools: large donations have made tuition completely free at some, while others are spearheading inaugural efforts to consciously increase socioeconomic diversity among the student body.
Unlike Yale College, which does not offer any internal merit-based scholarships and calculates need-based aid packages on income thresholds, there is no uniform system for determining how much financial aid a student would receive at the graduate level of the University. Amid these ongoing initiatives to drive accessibility, graduate students and financial administration spoke to the News about the impact that they have had, as well as the overarching FGLI graduate student experience at the University.
Studies have illustrated that family income plays a critical role in determining not only who applies to graduate and professional programs, but also who completes and reaps the overall financial benefits from the programs.
“There is this notion that if you don’t have the money … [higher education] isn’t possible in families or communities who don’t see education as being provided for, but I will say that as long as we are open to … applying for grants, you really can,” Tamara Fore-Ravelo DIV ’23, an FGLI student and the first Indigenous Student Government President at the Divinity School, said.
Though graduate school affordability has been a work in progress, 2022-2023 will be the first year that the Divinity School has completely achieved its goal of covering full tuition for underserved students, she added. Fore-Ravelo cited the importance of donations and scholarships that go toward funding the education of financially disadvantaged students — and stated that these forms of funding can make “all the difference” in an individual’s education trajectory.
Though applying for funding can be a process that comes with time and dedication, she emphasized that from her personal experiences, being an FGLI graduate student immediately put her in larger networks and cross-collaborations across other graduate programs at the University where affordability remains at the forefront of policy concerns.
Yale Law School has made sweeping reforms to financial aid since Heather Gerken assumed the position of Dean in 2017. YLS has long been a leader in offering need-based aid and is one of few graduate universities to exclusively offer need-based rather than merit-based aid. Since 2017, the number of first-generation lawyers have increased by almost 50 percent and the number of first-generation college students has increased by roughly 80 percent.
In September of this year, Gerken announced 51 students at or below the federal poverty level, would be receiving financial aid to cover the full cost of tuition. One recipient of this funding is Chisato Kimura LAW ’25.
“There are far too many institutional and systemic barriers currently preventing FGLI students from attending graduate school and/or making it disproportionately difficult for them to do so,” Kimura told the News. “I’m incredibly fortunate to attend a law school that provides generous financial aid to students like me, but financial aid at YLS and most graduate programs need to be expanded in order to make graduate school financially accessible to FGLI students.”
Gerken explained to the News that bolstering need-based aid to support first-generation and low-income students at YLS has been a top priority throughout her tenure. In addition to the full-tuition, the Hurst Horizon Scholarship and a Safety Net Fund to support students facing financial hardships, Gerken highlighted The Tsai Leadership Program, which was launched last year and helps students build crucial skills and mentorship connections as they launch their careers, particularly first-generation students who arrive in New Haven without existing networks.
The School of Management, on the other hand, offers only merit-based scholarships.
“What I worry about a lot in my job is how many people look at that sticker price and say ‘nope,’ I’ve got to help out mom and dad,” said SOM Director of Financial Aid Rebekah Melville. “First gen kids … look at the sticker price and just walk away, and so I think that’s a disadvantage of doing merit based aid.”
According to Melville, there simply is not enough donor support at the moment to transition to a need-based policy.
The issue of merit-based versus need-based aid is one that hasn’t been “seriously” discussed by administration, she said, but Melville also drew attention to the “extremely high” return on investment following graduation from SOM programs: graduates have average salaries that exceed $160,000 after completion of their schooling.
2022-2023 will mark the second year of SOM’s partnership with QuestBridge, a program that connects FGLI students to higher education opportunities. Among the opportunities that QuestBridge offers is the Graduate School Match, which allows selected QuestBridge alumni to gain full-tuition scholarships to full-time, two-year MBA programs.
For other graduate schools, the return on investment — or the salary one can earn after paying for an advanced degree — has historically had a say in the level of enrollment of FGLI students in certain post-bachelor’s programs, according to Fore-Ravelo and Sumaira Akbarzada SPH ’21.
Fore-Ravelo acknowledged that there is sometimes a familial pressure for low-income students to pursue higher education in fields that are traditionally seen as more capable of making money. Nevertheless, she emphasized that the interdisciplinary, real-world education afforded by graduate programs can open up new pathways and career trajectories for students in the humanities.
She said she knows peers and alumni from the Divinity School who went on to become lawyers, pastors, non-profit managers and politicians, for instance, mentioning that the type of degree is not necessarily the same as one’s future job.
“There’s this idea within our framework that … we are doing work that does not make money, that’s not true,” Fore-Ravelo said. “[Still], this notion of being able to go into something because you are [financially] supported, it’s very beneficial — at least it has been for me.”
Akbarzada, who was the recipient of the $24,000 Horstmann Scholarship for the Advanced Professional MPH degree at the Yale School of Public Health, agreed, calling on University administration to factor students’ personal finances into consideration for award distribution. Potential should involve more than simply “impressive resumes” and “academic achievements,” she said, mentioning that sometimes, students just as “brilliant and deserving” are unable to perform as well in school as their peers receiving merit-based grants due to juggling other jobs and responsibilities.
Nonetheless, the feeling of community and solidarity among first-generation, low-income students — as well as the groups willing to support them — lent to a largely positive experience at the Yale School of Public Health despite occasional financial barriers.
“I recall one of my professors telling us that there is no money or fame in public health. You enter this field because of the fire and desire in your heart to make a difference,” Abkabazar told the News, emphasizing the commitment of her professors, mentors and other students in her cohort to social justice. “I believe this quotation strongly embodies the overall culture at the Yale School of Public Health. Hence, being a FGLI at the School of Public Health was not alienating or isolating at all.”
Yale University’s graduate school is the oldest among all American higher education institutions.