So, Yale proclaimed something rather unfortunate on a recent cover of its alumni magazine: “Yale College seeks smart students from poor families. They’re out there–but hard to find.” (h/t: Rachel Anne Levy on Twitter, who linked to this blog post by Jon Pelto.)
Protip: If you’re describing “smart students from poor families” using a line that any number of B-movie heroes might have said about UFOs, maybe rethink that.
But it’s worth noting that this isn’t solely a case of an unfortunate headline; there are a few problems with the article too as well as the Yale admissions philosophy expressed therein. To that end, I wanted to expand a bit on a few observations I made on Twitter.
Let’s start with the Yale Alumni Magazine‘s choice of author for this piece. Now, I imagine the Yale Alumni Magazine freelance budget isn’t huge, but it’s probably existent, and it’s telling that the magazine handed this story assignment to an ’06 grad who describes himself as a “prep school kid” who drove to Yale in a “Mercedes station wagon” — not, say, the poor roommate he writes about, or (assuming said roommate may not be interested in magazine writing) another alum from a poor background who is pursuing a journalism career. So, even in the very process of publishing an article about outreach to poor kids, Yale is perpetuating privilege through the process of which alum it chose to gift with that article’s byline, resume line, and whatever the freelance paycheck is, however nominal.
But less concretely, the choice of author also suggests (even if inadvertently) whose voice Yale thinks is most important when it comes to addressing issues of poor kids fitting in, or not, at elite institutions. The implicit message is that a poor kid himself — even a poor kid with a Yale degree! — is unlikely to have something insightful to say about this issue, except as mediated through the voice of his rich roommate. Now, that didn’t have to be the implicit message and I certainly don’t mean to imply that a Yale alum from a privileged background couldn’t have written a solid article about class issues at Yale, or even that this article might not appear different had I approached it without the priming effect of that cover, but when you combine the embarrassing cover line, the unfortunate opening anecdote, and the choice of author, it doesn’t add up to a good look.
About that opening anecdote: It sets a really weird tone for the article, implying that a primary virtue of admitting a few poor kids here and there is that they can teach their rich roommates about rural life. The author admits that he’d only ever “glimpsed America’s rural poor … from the windows of swiftly moving vehicles.” But then he had “a swine showman” for a roommate and he learned that they actually had things in common, like “a shared affinity” for the Sony PlayStation. Well, I’ve yet to meet a teenager born in the 1980s who didn’t have at least some affinity for the Sony PlayStation (I myself played a lot of Crash Bandicoot in my day) but call me unimpressed by this touching moment of roommate bonding.
Then, moving on to the meat of the article, there’s this, from Yale’s dean of admissions, Jeremiah Quinlan:
Asked whether yale [sic!] 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.”
Now, this quote is tossed off as though it’s just a noble profession of neutrality. Yale isn’t tipping the scale for poor kids, its admissions director insists, because Yale shouldn’t be tipping the scales for anyone other than kids “who will make the most” of Yale. Well, that’s a coherent admissions philosophy to have, but it’s certainly not a neutral one. It’s an admissions philosophy that, on the margins, will favor rich kids and, overall, will heavily disadvantage poor kids. Because how do you show that you are going to “contribute the most” and “make the most out of Yale’s resources”? Well, maybe you don’t have to come from Exeter but you have to come from a school functional and organized enough to have some kind of activities and clubs and advanced coursework — some kind of setting in which you can demonstrate your aptitude for taking advantage of what you’re given. In other words, you need to have at least some resources to begin with, that you can use to show your ability to make the most of resources.*
To be sure, Yale is hardly an outlier on these issues and many if not all of its peer institutions have equally problematic practices, philosophies, and approaches to questions of class equality. In a way, the very existence of this article evidences a sort of identity crisis among America’s elite institutions, which were historically schools for the rich but also historically untroubled about that. I suppose it’s some kind of progress that Yale is supposed to even pretend to be concerned about its low percentage of Pell Grant recipients but it’s more than a little telling that this article, aimed at their alumni (i.e. their donor base and, not least, progenitors of many future applicants) is how they express their concern.
* There’s also, of course, a whole set of questions about how Yale is defining “who will contribute the most” here (and contribute to what), which I don’t have the time or inclination to get into here, but are worth thinking about.