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Funding fails

By Alex Wisowaty

This week, applying for a summer internship in Morocco, I spent some time browsing through fellowship options only to find that many of the deadlines had already passed. This was surprising to me, as many of the internships that I was considering had only recently begun accepting applicants. With a bit more research, I began to feel I had been misled as to the scope and availability of the funding provided by Yale-coordinated fellowships. The university administration does not officially mandate any particular activity over the summer, but professes to encourage any plans students might develop for themselves. To connect students with professional and educational opportunities, the university supplies a number of resources exclusively devoted to the summer, such as a listing of coordinated internships and counseling opportunities through the Office of Career Strategy. But despite all the ways in which Yale demonstrates its commitment to student learning over the summer, one major deficit remains: the university’s funding policies fail to provide sufficient support for socioeconomically disadvantaged students.

A quick visit to the fellowships page of the Yale Office of Career Strategy website reveals this generous invitation: “Find support for research, study abroad, public service, unpaid internships, and self-designed projects, in New Haven and around the globe.” The slogan appears to promise a reliable source of funding that will enable any student to pursue their particular passion regardless of their financial background. This, of course, would fit in with Yale’s professed commitment to providing equal opportunities to students of all means. In his 2013 Freshman Address, President Peter Salovey acknowledged, “Yale has seen socioeconomic mobility as a central pillar of its mission since its earliest days.” Despite this claim, the fellowship application process seems to run contrary to this mission.

First and foremost, fellowship funding is merit-based rather than need-based. Applicants submit proposals detailing the circumstances of their summer plans and make a case for the importance of the professional or educational project they are planning. But details of the applicants’ financial backgrounds are not given any weight by committee members in the decision-making process. The result is a system that entirely forgoes its potential to level the playing field for students who might not be able to pay out of pocket for their accommodations in a program away from home. The OCS webpage further clarifies that “fellowships, whether Yale-funded or external, are always competitive. There is never enough funding to support every strong application received.” This, of course, creates the very real possibility that a student from a low-income household who has put together said strong application will be rejected in favor of a student with greater means to fund a summer opportunity without assistance.

This fundamental weakness is further compounded by other quirks in the system. Notably, fellowships cannot be applied towards the Student Contribution Fee, a specified amount of money that students on financial aid are responsible for supplying towards their tuition each year. This unfortunately creates a situation in which a student is forced to choose between an unpaid internship or lab position, for example, and a summer job with which they would be able to earn the amount demanded by the university as their student contribution.

From this point, the disadvantages for low-income individuals only grow larger. If a student in need mainly or exclusively relies on external funding for their summer plans, their options may be limited due to the timing of the application deadlines. Most Yale-coordinated fellowships have deadlines in early February or earlier. This is well before a student would receive notice of acceptance or rejection by high-profile summer opportunities like a laboratory position or an internship outside of Yale. Consequently, students whose circumstances compel them to rely on outside funding may be prevented from even considering certain experiences.

Besides timing, the selection of opportunities that can be funded through Yale’s fellowship network is much more limited than it should be. Fellowships are funded by donations from alumni and other organizations committed to higher learning, and as a result, the causes they support are often highly specific due to each patron’s personal sentimentalities. For example, many fellowships established to fund research projects require an additional element, such as the Jehiel R. Elyachar Fellowship, which requires a focus on Judaic Studies but expressly prohibits “topics researching anti-Semitism.” Under the current system, it is likely that a donor’s interests, rather than a student’s personal aspirations, will determine the student’s summer activities.

If a student finds themselves in lucky circumstances, the three months between the spring and fall semesters may become a time to sharpen foreign language skills, form invaluable professional connections, or participate in groundbreaking research alongside celebrated experts in their field of interest. However, Yale’s current standards for awarding summer funding jeopardizes the ability of some students to share equally in opportunities. If the university wishes to uphold its longstanding commitment to socioeconomic mobility for low-income students, it is time to at least consider a needs-based approach with a more appropriate timeline for application. The oversized influence of patrons on the types of opportunities available, while unfortunate, may be necessary to sustain their interest in donating. All the same, Yale would be wise to initiate an honest conversation with students themselves about the unfair burdens their fellowship funding policies place on applicants of varying economic backgrounds.

 

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