“Yale: Affordable For Everyone” the postcard reads at the top. Below, in Yale’s signature typeface, the card explains just how economically feasible it is to attend the university. “STUDENTS NEED NO LOANS” and “PARENTS PAY $0. REALLY.” Smaller print explains some conditions about financial aid. The text is reminiscent of an infomercial or the billboard in front of a used car dealership, but the minimalist design of white lettering on a Yale blue background makes the card look official and dignified.
And yet 15 percent of the Yale graduating class was in debt in 2013. The average borrower owed $13,009 in student loans, according to a report compiled by the nonprofit The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS). The Yale Daily Newsreported similar numbers in 2014. Freshmen on financial aid contribute a minimum of $1,625 towards their tuition; this jumps to at least $3,050 for sophomores and upperclassmen. Not to mention the unexpected expenses of college life—transportation to and from campus, textbooks, toiletries.
This issue is not new—Yale historically has, and continues to, struggle with a stereotype of welcoming only the wealthy white applicants. And while specific initiatives like the postcards have been implemented to undermine this cliché, they may not be painting the complete picture.
In early July, 20,000 high-achieving high school students from low-income families received postcards from the Yale Office of Undergraduate Admissions. The same students will receive another postcard, two emails, and a letter later in the year. This outreach effort was one of six commitments Yale made after President Barack Obama, President Peter Salovey, and some 80 other university heads met in January to dis- cuss college access. Other commitments include sending more than 300 Student Ambassadors to make financial aid presentations in their hometowns and expanding the Freshman Scholars at Yale Program, which provides sum- mer classes to incoming students from low-income fami- lies before they arrive on campus.
Many of these initiatives are not entirely new, but rather expand on previously successful efforts to draw students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. The Admissions Office piloted the postcard campaign in summer 2013, sending cards focused on financial aid to 16,000 low-income candidates in addition to regular outreach materials that Yale sends to all high-achieving students. “Applications from students who received the postcard last summer grew at three times the overall in- crease in applications,” Mark Dunn, director of outreach and recruitment, told the Herald in an email.
According to Dunn, who designed the postcards, the inspiration for the project came from Brookings Institute, a prominent policy think tank based in Washington D.C. In 2013, the institute released a paper titled “The Missing ‘One-Offs,’” which claimed that low-income students in rural communities are the least likely to apply to selective colleges. “Obviously, it is dif- ficult for low-income students living in remote ar- eas to attend an information session held by one of our admissions officers,” Dunn said. “With lim- ited time and resources, we must focus our travel energies on denser areas where we will see large numbers of high-achieving students.” By sending postcards, Yale can at least contact overlooked students even if a representative is not available in their area.
Beyond geographic limitations, it has historically been difficult to identify this population. A follow-up to the Brookings research offered a solution by suggesting that universities take advantage of public information from the US Census Bureau on household incomes within a certain census district. By checking this data against a list of promising students according to the PSAT or ACT, the admissions office could discern a subcategory of high-achieving students from low socioeconomic backgrounds.
After identifying this target population, it all comes down to sending the right message. From looking at the two postcards Yale has sent so far, one might glean that cost- effectiveness is the main point that the ad- missions office wants to get across. While Dunn says that affordability is not the only thing the admissions office emphasizes— academics and campus life are also critical claims—it is the striking feature of this campaign. Both cards feature some permutation of the word “afford” on the top in large print, which raises an important question: Is Yale affordable?
Undergraduates who have been active in the burgeoning financial aid discussion think that the post- card initiative and other outreach commitments are all well and good. Yet some students active in the financial aid discussion worry that Yale may be somewhat care- less in over-emphasizing affordability while glossing over common financial stumbling blocks that students face once they get here. Of particular concern is the student contribution, which requires all students on financial aid to work, dip into savings, or take out a loan in order to pay for part of their tuition. The contribution starts at a minimum of $1,625 for freshmen and jumps to at least $3,050 for sophomores and upperclassmen.
When shown the postcard, many of the students interviewed pointed to the eye-catching statements in outsized font as misleading. For Diana Rosen, PC’16, a columnist for the Yale Daily News who has written extensively on the topic, the phrase “Parents pay $0. Really” smacks of advertisement puffery. “Yale constantly touts the fact that families making under $65,000 pay nothing for their children’s education; it just doesn’t mention that the student will be expected to pay a significant amount of money, especially after freshman year when the student contributions jump,” she said.
David Elias, BK ’16, president of Yale’s chapter of Questbridge, a scholarship program for low-income students, also takes issue with the claim that “students need no loans.”
“Technically, you don’t need a loan. However, the reality is that if you can’t find a scholarship, a paid internship, enough hours to work during the year, or money from other sources, then you’ll have to take out a loan,” he added.
Ryan Mera Evans, ES ’17, noted that students take out loans to cover all kinds of hidden and unexpected costs. “The loans can be used to pay for things that can be taken as a given by a lot of Yale students, like transportation to and from home, books, school materials, glasses, toiletries—a lot of the things you need to be a socially functioning and socially accepted being at Yale.”
Elias also mentioned that contribution payments are inconveniently due during the fall term, so many students who start off the first semester with insufficient funds will have to take out a loan and spend the rest of the year paying it off, usually through a part-time job. And while many students understand that they will have to work during their time at Yale, they often do not realize how this will interfere with their undergraduate experience.
“My freshman year, the job I had would only allow me to work before 5p.m., so that meant that I had to schedule my classes and extracurriculars to make sure there was time for me to work,” Elias said.
“I guess you don’t need loans if you work mad hours every week,” added Travis Reginal, BK ‘16, a member of the Undergraduate First Generation-Low Income Partnership (U-FLIP).
Director of Student Financial Services Caesar Storlazzi tried to put a positive spin on the required work aspect of the student contribution. “Over the years we’ve found that having a job that’s eight to twelve hours a week is actually a help in terms of scheduling and get- ting things done,” he said. Eight to twelve hours, Storlazzi added, “is not really an inordinate amount of time to spend working. At least in our opinion, it does not have an adverse affect on studying and so on.” He did acknowledge that some students take out loans instead of working if they are involved in other time-consuming activities, like athletics or music.
So a loan-free, affordable Yale is not a reality for many students, especially given the student contribution. Peer institutions, including Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford, all require some version of the student contribution. Yet all four institutions boast large endowments that, theoretically, could allow them to do away with these programs altogether. This possibility naturally sparks the question of whether student debt could be eradicated if we were to do away with the student contribution.
Storlazzi declined to comment on why the student contribution has not been abolished or lowered in recent years, even though, according to the Yale Investments Office’s last report in 2013, the University’s endowment exceeds $20 billion. He also would not say whether there is discussion about getting rid of it.
Dunn was quick to point out that both the financial aid website and the Net Price Calculator, which calculates the cost of attending based on income, are clear when it comes to expectations for the student contribution. Rosen, however, worries that many students never read the fine print because this information is not immediately available on the front page of the site. It does require thorough exploration to find. “I agree that the information is all available on the website, but many people do not search through the financial aid websites of the schools they are applying to, especially those who come from families that are unfamiliar with the college application system,” Rosen explained.
This is not to say that students disagree with the ideal of putting a focus on affordability when reaching out to high- achievers from low-income areas. “Overall [the admissions office] should reach out with the message of affordability,” said Reginal. “People from my background don’t aspire to elites colleges. But in doing that, [Yale] needs to be clearer.”
Imagine: a glossy blue postcard arrives in your mail- box and promises an unimagined but bright future. There is something magical about it. But the postcard falls victim to the inherent pitfall of postcards—it only offers the beautiful view and the happy bullet points. There isn’t space to discuss the complexities that accompany the promises, or the ways that Yale sometimes fall short of them.
Illustration by Zachary Schiller