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Wanted: smart students from poor families

The families of Yale College students, on average, are substantially richer than the American norm. How much can the university change this? How much should it?

David Zax ’06 has written for Time and Fast Company. This article was underwritten by the Seth E. Frank ’58LLB Literary Fund.

Alex Nabaum

Alex Nabaum

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I had never met a swine showman before, let alone a prize-winning one. But Tynan Granberg ’06, the kind-faced, green-eyed, soft-spoken teen whose hand I first shook in September of 2002 as we moved into our Silliman dorm, had been the Lake County Fair’s grand champion swine showman five years running. Tynan’s family in Oregon raised cattle; each morning, Tynan had risen early to feed them, a chore he’d written about in his Yale application. That application was almost a fluke, he told me later: a worldly uncle had mentioned to Tynan that some elite schools out east were trying to increase their “socioeconomic diversity.” Yale might just let him in and throw in a big scholarship, his uncle said. “He’s like, you’re this pig farmer from southeastern Oregon,” Tynan recalled. “That’s going to stand out from the prep school kids that are applying.”

I was one of those prep school kids. A few days before I met Tynan, my family loaded up our Mercedes station wagon in our affluent neighborhood in Washington, DC, and wound our way north, tracing a route like the one we’d followed on the college tour we took during spring break of my junior year of high school. Though Tynan and I would soon discover a shared affinity for PlayStation games and Wilco albums, our lives were very different. If I had glimpsed America’s rural poor at all, it had been from the windows of swiftly moving vehicles.

Yale is an elite school, but for some time, it has consciously tried to be less elitist. In the popular imagination, “Yale” may still evoke images of The Simpsons’ plutocrat Montgomery Burns or our nation’s last president, of rich kids whose admission had little to do with their academic achievements. In reality, though, like many top schools, Yale has striven in recent years to diversify its campus, not only racially but socioeconomically. Yale’s decision in 2008 to waive any parental contribution toward college costs from families making under $60,000 (and later, under $65,000) was simply the most public of several initiatives in recent years to make Yale more enticing for students of lower socioeconomic strata. Yale’s financial aid enabled Tynan to come to Yale; he was asked to contribute $5,000 a year, which he managed between summer jobs, savings, and loans.

It remains true, though, that students with backgrounds like mine are much more common at schools like Yale than students with backgrounds like Tynan’s. Nationwide, the well-off are more likely to enjoy the amenities and expectations that encourage academic achievement. In 2010–11, 35 percent of American students at four-year state and private colleges received Pell Grants, the main type of federal aid for low- and moderate-income students. But at Yale College, the percentage of Pell Grant undergraduates over the past decade has hovered between 10 percent and 16 percent. Only 831 students enrolled in Yale College last year came from families below that $65,000 threshold. That figure, 15 percent of the student body, is virtually unchanged from Tynan’s and my class over a decade before it.

In the class of 2017, an additional 16 percent of the student body comes from families making between $66,000 and $120,000. The remaining 69 percent of the class comes from families that earn more than $120,000 per year. These proportions have only fluctuated by a percentage or two over the last several years, meaning that across the entire undergraduate student body last year, over two thirds came from America’s top economic quintile.

All of which is to say that for all Yale’s actions, its student body remains disproportionately wealthy. It looks like America turned upside down.

 

Yale is hardly alone in these proportions; similar or more extreme ones obtain at its rivals. But there are exceptions.

When Anthony Marx ’81 became president of Amherst College in 2003, it was something of a fluke. A political science professor at Columbia, Marx had simply been “minding his own business,” as he recalled to a Bloomberg Businessweek reporter a few years later, when someone suggested his name. When he found himself before Amherst’s search committee, he decided he had nothing to lose in pitching a radical vision of Amherst’s future.

Marx had come to feel that the widening rift between America’s haves and have-nots was one of the country’s most pressing concerns, and that elite higher education had become complicit in perpetuating if not worsening that rift. So Marx told Amherst that if they hired him, he wanted to change that. “I’m not interested in being a custodian over a privileged place,” he told the committee. They gave him the job.

Changing the socioeconomic composition of a campus presents three discrete challenges. First, you need to get more low-income students to apply; second, you need to admit more of them; and third, you need to make sure they succeed once they matriculate. Marx tackled all three, he later told the New York Times, by doing “everything we can think of.”

Marx encouraged Amherst admissions officers to visit low-income schools they hadn’t visited before, and he created a telementoring program for current students to help prospective ones. He pushed for the college to admit more of its transfer students from community colleges, and he drummed up more financial aid. He increased Amherst’s overall student population so as to not too greatly disturb the tradition of legacy and athletic admits. He convened groups of students to discuss class differences, making his mission “palpable on campus,” in the words of one student at the time.

 

Alex Nabaum

Alex Nabaum

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By the time he stepped down in 2011, Marx’s initiatives had substantially altered the socioeconomic composition of the student body, more than doubling the low-income enrollment, eventually bringing Pell Grant levels to 22 percent. The dire repercussions others had warned of never arrived: Marx says that during his tenure Amherst’s selectivity increased, and it received the largest gifts in the history of the college.

Marx’s goals always extended beyond Amherst. “If we are sufficiently aggressive,” Marx told Businessweek, “we will force the rest of elite higher education to be much more serious about this.”

Some educators took Marx’s example more to heart than others. Since Catharine Bond Hill ’85PhD took office as president of Vassar College in 2006, the college has reinstituted need-blind admissions and has raised its Pell Grant undergraduate population from 9 percent to 24 percent, exceeding even Amherst. “We moved away from loans for the lowest-income students, and we just made a real push on the admissions side to recruit from certain schools and pools to find first-generation and low-income students,” says Hill, who recently joined the Yale Corporation, the university’s board of trustees.

Although Yale’s most recent Pell Grant number (14 percent) is lower than all the Ivies but Princeton (see chart, facing page), it cannot be said that Yale has ignored the examples of its alumni at Amherst and Vassar. Over the last decade, Yale has taken steps in their direction.

Take, for instance, the first problem mentioned above: getting more high-achieving, low-income students to apply in the first place. This is the area where Yale’s new dean of admissions, Jeremiah Quinlan ’03, has real chops, since prior to ascending to the deanship, he was the office’s director of outreach and recruitment, a post he took in 2005. Around this time, Quinlan read a book called Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education, coauthored by former Princeton president William Bowen, a book that convinced Quinlan of the importance of getting more high-achieving low-income students at Yale. “I felt it was very much Yale’s duty to respond in a number of ways,” he says.

Quinlan’s beliefs were largely mirrored by his then-boss, Jeffrey Brenzel ’75, who was known for a thoughtful bent on class matters. Quinlan collaborated with Brenzel to implement a few programs. First, Yale partnered with QuestBridge, a nonprofit dedicated to matching low-income applicants with leading colleges. Yale also founded the student ambassador program, now almost a decade old, through which the Office of Undergraduate Admissions trains current Yale students to act as liaisons to high schools around the country, with an emphasis on high-achieving low-income populations. Quinlan also secured funding to expand a fly-in program for low-income students who have been admitted to Yale but are still undecided.

In some ways, though, the problem of reaching out to high-achieving low-income students is only beginning to be more fully understood. For years, Caroline Hoxby of Stanford and Christopher Avery of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government have been researching such students. In December of 2012, they published a white paper through the National Bureau of Economic Research called “The Missing ‘One-Offs’: The Hidden Supply of High-Achieving, Low-Income Students.”

Hoxby and Avery write that “the vast majority of very high-achieving students who are low-income do not apply to any selective college or university.” These students “come from districts too small to support selective public high schools, are not in a critical mass of fellow high achievers, and are unlikely to encounter a teacher or schoolmate from an older cohort who attended a selective college.” These are students a lot like my roommate Tynan (whose admission to Yale was front-page news in the Lake County Examiner), but lacking that eccentric uncle to plant the idea of Yale in their heads. It simply doesn’t occur to them, or they fear it will be too expensive—when in fact, in all likelihood, it might be free.

Hoxby and Avery parsed the data and found that if you were a poor, smart kid who did apply to an elite school, the odds were overwhelming that you came from one of just 15 urban areas: San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, San Diego, Dallas, Houston, Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Portland, Boston, Providence, New York, Philadelphia, or Baltimore. The gears of meritocracy turn most reliably in our cities. Of the poor, smart kids who applied to elite schools in the Hoxby-Avery dataset, a mere 21 percent lived outside an urban area.

Another implication of the Hoxby-Avery research is that in focusing on those few urban areas, Yale and other elite schools may be competing against each other in a zero-sum game. Yale might aggressively recruit in Chicago’s South Side, but if it raises its Pell numbers as a result, that was probably at the expense of another elite institution’s Pell numbers. If Yale aims in part to make America more meritocratic as a whole, it should expand the pool it fishes in, rather than simply using the tastiest bait.

That’s easier said than done; it’s cost-prohibitive to hire admissions officers to comb the nation’s dusty rural roads. But Hoxby and Avery offer a few suggestions. Targeted mailings touting the generous financial aid available to low-income students could be effective. Yale implemented this idea this summer, sending 16,000 tailored mailings to low-income high-achievers. Hoxby and Avery also suggest that any university has a vast, untapped resource: you who are reading this. University alumni far outnumber admissions staff and are geographically dispersed; one anonymous elite university studied in 2012 had alumni in most US counties. But Yale alumni would need to be coordinated and trained to be effective recruiters.

While Hoxby and Avery have been studying this problem, Francisco Guajardo has lived it. Currently an associate professor at the University of Texas–Pan American, Guajardo taught high school for many years in a small Texas border town. He became fiercely determined to send the brightest kids from his school to the nation’s top schools, placing one at Yale by 1993; an interest in elite colleges gradually grew in the area, with over a hundred kids winding up at the Ivies and comparable schools. But his story is regrettably anomalous. He thinks it’s the responsibility of Yale and other elite schools to try to identify enterprising young educators in remote areas and to build relationships with them. When I ask for a concrete idea of how Yale might do this, he proposes Yale convene a retreat of such educators annually, “people who show some sort of spark plug quality” and a real desire to “break the isolation” of their communities. (Yale does host one of QuestBridge’s three College Prep Scholarship conferences each year, welcoming low-income students and their parents for a conference on applying to college.)

Guajardo said his interactions with Yale’s admissions office had been positive over the years, but that he felt Yale could do more. He wants to see a whole network of remote or rural areas sending their communities’ best and brightest to top schools. “So few institutions have the gravitas to do it,” Guajardo told me. “Your alma mater is one of those. Your alma mater could lead, if it really wanted to.”

 

Getting low-income students to apply is one problem; getting them to feel at home once at Yale is another.

“I struggled a bit that first semester,” Tynan recalls. “My mom had to remind me the same thing she told me in first grade: that school is about learning, not proving how much you already know.” It’s common for any matriculating Yale student to feel this to some degree, but low-income students often feel less prepared than others for the rigors of Yale coursework. A student fresh from Andover walking into a Directed Studies seminar is in his element; less so, a product of an Appalachia county’s public school system.

Yale is addressing this in part with a new program called Freshman Scholars at Yale. This past July, 33 incoming low-income and first-generation freshmen were invited to study at Yale for five weeks, taking an intensive writing course and becoming acquainted with Yale’s resources, including tutoring and mentoring programs. The program, which is in the first of its three pilot years, includes tuition, room, board, and transportation at no cost to the student.

Preparatory disparities are one matter, but there’s another, less tangible reason why low-income students sometimes do not feel welcome at Yale. Last February, Alejandro Gutierrez ’13, ’15MPH, who comes from a low-income family in Los Angeles, wrote an op-ed for the Yale Daily News about the challenges facing low-income students. “I felt there’s a culture of silence around issues of class,” Gutierrez told me. He recalls being embarrassed admitting to his suitemates that he hadn’t even known applying early to Yale was an option. There was a sense that everyone spoke a code he didn’t know. And there was the code that he and other low-income students felt compelled to speak themselves: excuses muttered when invited out for beers they couldn’t afford, euphemistic explanations about why they wouldn’t be flying home for Thanksgiving.

Gutierrez, who worked for the admissions office as a tour guide, says he’s developing proposals for a campus center devoted to matters of class. The fact that he’s not sure what to name it underscores the stigma adhering to talking about such matters openly. The idea has precedent, though, in a national coalition of about 20 campus groups called U/FUSED (“United for Undergraduate Socio-Economic Diversity”). Chase Sackett ’14JD is U/FUSED’s director of affiliate development; he says that when he first reached out to the undergraduate Yale College Council a few years ago, “they weren’t interested at that point.” (A report that Sackett and others compiled last year found that similar tensions and stratifications around class existed at the Law School.)

But appetite for this kind of conversation may be shifting. When Gutierrez wrote his story for the News, it was widely shared and discussed. And at the highest levels at Yale, administrators say they are increasingly concerned with the issue. The theme of President Peter Salovey’s speech to incoming freshmen this year was “Yale and the American Dream.” (It is available at yalealumnimagazine.com and in our November/December print issue.) He traced the arc of three generations of Saloveys, from poor immigrants to Yale president. And he cited studies showing that a college education increased threefold the likelihood of moving from the lowest economic stratum to the highest.

Yet even as his own example displayed the reality of that dream for some, Salovey ’86PhD acknowledged in his speech that “this morning I worry about whether the American Dream is still possible and whether education is still the best ‘ticket’ to socioeconomic mobility.” He noted that college completion had increased among the wealthier half of Americans, but not the poorer half.

And he encouraged students to talk about it. Noting that Yalies had gotten very comfortable discussing cultures, religion, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, there was still one topic that remained, often, delicately passed over. “I believe that talking about socioeconomic status is one of the last taboos among Yale students,” he said.

 

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One of the most difficult conversations the Yale community may need to have about class is not about the students who are already at Yale, but about the ones who are entering its applicant pool. To talk about recruiting more low-income students and making them feel at home is, at root, to talk about money and its constraints. But to talk about the act of admitting them—the nebulous wizardry that goes on inside the Henry F. English House on Hillhouse Avenue—is to talk about something much more controversial: the proverbial “thumb on the scale.”

Five different kinds of applicants get such special attention at Yale: legacies (students with a family member who went to Yale), athletes, students of color, first-generation college students, and low-income students. Does that mean a legacy, athlete, black, Latino, or low-income student with a 2100 SAT score (and equivalent scores on the other features of his or her application) is more likely to be admitted to Yale than a similarly scoring applicant who is none of those things?

Quinlan balks at that idea. “Applications never have a single factor, such as an SAT score, that is the same while only one other factor (legacy, athletic recruiting, race) differs,” he writes in an e-mail. “It is convenient for conversations to revolve around SAT scores because a test score is a number and a number gives the illusion of precision. But admissions applications are never that tidy.” He adds, “I would say that in practice being affirmative means, in fact, being affirmative: treating something as a positive factor in an application with a weight that depends heavily on everything else we find in the application.”

Though the influential 2005 book Equity and Excellence revealed that in aggregate, America’s elite schools did not give admissions preference to low-income students, Quinlan asserts that Yale represents an exception, and that data from the Office of Institutional Research confirms this. But if Yale puts a thumb on the scale for the poor, just how hard does it press? How hard should it press? Asked whether Yale presses harder for any one of the five groups, Quinlan says only: “We consider these factors along with all other factors in a holistic and contextual review of an application file, and it is impossible to quantify on an individual basis.”

Advocates of class-based admissions preference frequently argue against it for the other groups on Yale’s list. Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation (a progressive think tank), dismisses legacy admissions as “affirmative action for the rich.” Kahlenberg also believes it is time to retire race-based admissions preference, for several reasons: its political unpopularity, apparent vulnerability in the courts, and arguably unfair benefits extended to students of color from privileged backgrounds.

 

Asked whether Yale has a duty to craft a student population representative of America, or whether Yale should strive for a concrete quota of low-income students, Quinlan says no on both counts. “Yale is one of the top research institutions and universities in the world,” he says, “with preeminent faculty, incredible graduate and professional schools, astounding libraries, laboratories, and collections. We’re looking for talented students with high aspirations from every background, with every kind of talent, from every kind of high school, every religion, every ethnicity, every family income, and every possible outlook and perspective.” But when the applications come in, Yale’s foremost concern is to put together the best possible class. “You’re constantly asking yourself, is this the student who will contribute the most, who will make the most out of Yale’s resources? I think setting a quota or target is antithetical to the idea of a complete evaluation of the individual.”

I ask Quinlan what role Yale has to play in mending the rift between America’s wealthy and its poor. He responds that while rising economic inequality in America is a “huge societal issue,” Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and MIT combined enroll fewer students than Ohio State in any given year. “Pundits and critics focus on the Yales and Harvards of the world because of their names, but the larger issue is the continued lack of appetite by elected officials at the state and national level to fund higher education.” Indeed, a recent report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities revealed that all but two states were spending less per student than before 2008; nationally, recent years have seen roughly a quarter less spending per student.

While not disputing the weight of these national matters, Kahlenberg resists the idea that Yale is small enough and private enough to largely watch from the sidelines. “Yale, like other nonprofit private institutions, receives enormous tax breaks because it’s supposed to be serving the public interest,” he says. “To my mind, a central feature of serving that public interest is helping students from all backgrounds achieve the American Dream, and so long as very large portions of the Yale student body are coming from the most privileged backgrounds in the country, I think Yale is not serving that public purpose.” He continues: “In America, institutions of higher education are meant to promote social mobility, and right now, Yale and other leading universities aren’t serving that function. For the most part they are replicating existing inequalities.”

Is Yale’s concentrated excellence a factor that mitigates its obligation to search even farther and wider for the promising poor, to spend even more on them when they arrive, and to take even more chances on them when their files reach the admissions office? Or is Yale’s excellence—the weight of the examples it sets, the reach of the alumni it breeds—what obliges it to do all those things, perhaps as aggressively as its alumni did at Amherst and Vassar?

As President Salovey said, talking about class is difficult. But if questions like these aren’t asked, the conversation may not be worth having at all.

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