I straightened the collar of my blazer — a gesture I’ve always associated with professionalism — and cleared my throat. “Well, Yale’s in Connecticut. Or, New Haven, to clearly put it. Er, put it clearly. Which is about halfway between New York and Boston.”
My audience, a group of about forty high-schoolers crammed into a tiny classroom that had been slapped with the label “Career Center,” appeared underwhelmed. I didn’t blame them; after two years away from my alma mater in Gilbert, Arizona, I seemed to have gained nothing more than a reliance on split infinitives and a fuzzy awareness of New England geography. An awkward minute passed, then a boy dressed in an ill-fitting suit thrust his hand towards me and twirled it like a baton.
“Um, yes?” I asked.
He beamed. “What kind of scholarships does Yale offer?”
Fortunately, the admissions office had armed me with materials to answer this question. “Yale doesn’t offer merit-based scholarships, but we— I mean, it—does offer aid to financially disadvantaged students.” I picked up a stack of information sheets and started handing them out. “These explain how you can apply for money.”
As I snaked between the rows of desks, I overheard a girl mutter to her friend: “It’s not like I can afford to go there anyways. Even if I got in, which I like, wouldn’t.” Before I could devise an optimistic response, the bell rang, and my audience dissolved. They threw their backpacks over their shoulders and swarmed past me. Like a pebble tossed by white water rapids, I was struck by my own futility. When the classroom had nearly emptied, the overdressed boy inched towards me, a thick stack of papers in hand.
I smiled half-heartedly. “Yeah?”
“Would you mind taking a look at my application? Also, does this count as an interview?”
“I’m not an admissions officer. I’m just a student.”
His eyes widened with despair, and, in his oversized glasses, I saw a reflection of my high school self— eager to please, overachieving, and desperate to get into a good school. I hesitated, then took the ream of forms from his outstretched arms. “Let’s take a look at this together.”
* * *
A year ago, I participated in a Yale program that encouraged students to return to their high schools and give “Thanksgiving Information Sessions”—brief visits intended to publicize the University, solicit students to apply, and build relationships with schools in geographic regions rarely visited by official recruitment officers. Unbeknownst to its participants at the time, the project was an unofficial prototype for a large-scale proposal that would be realized in the fall of 2005.
This new initiative, the Student Ambassadors Program, is a collaboration between the Yale College Council and the University’s admissions office. Steven Syverud, President of the YCC, began campaigning for the project shortly after he assumed office. “We wrote a resolution to improve admissions tactics in January,” he said, “because many of us were strongly interested in low income recruitment. All semester, I went to the admissions office every week, asking, ‘Are we going to do this program?’
Jeremiah Quinlan, a Yale admissions officer, was adamantly in favor of the idea from its inception. “The Yale admissions office is always trying to improve our recruiting efforts as we continue to strive to bring a diverse freshman class to this campus,” he said. In seeking to broaden these efforts, the program’s architects sent out an open application call this September, via e-mail, for “ambassadors.” The tone of the first e-mail appealed to the student body’s devotion to the University—a sort of “for, God, for Country, and for Yale” pitch. “We hope this program will become a Yale tradition,” it read, a tradition in which students would “be paid $50 for their first visit and $20 for each visit after that.”
While Yale will not release the official number of student ambassadors until after Thanksgiving Break, when their visits have been clocked in, Syverud hinted that the figures were impressive. “The original plan was to send fifty students out, but we underestimated the interest that the idea would elicit—about three hundred students applied.” Accepted ambassadors were then trained—to a greater degree than I was—and given an overview of the purpose of their visits.
The schools targeted by the initiative were chosen according to guidelines devised by the admissions office and the YCC. First, the program’s creators asked: How many students at the school is question are scoring 1300 or higher on their SATs? Then, are enough of those students applying to Yale? The third consideration, noted Syverud, was the average income level of the students. Though, he admitted, the system is “sort of an inexact science,” he affirmed that “if two schools had evenly matched test scores, we went to the lower income.”
While the goals of the program—increasing low-income recruitment and broadening geographic distribution—may seem unsurprising in the contemporary context of the University’s liberal atmosphere, Yale’s drive to realize them is a fairly recent development. Syverud, who is writing his senior essay on the subject, points to the Yale of forty years ago. “In terms of admissions,” he said, “Yale was the most conservative of the Ivy Leagues. We used to send the entire office to prep schools like Andover and Exeter for weeks at a time, with entire rating systems devoted to those institutions.” He paused, then added with a tone of hushed admiration: “All that changed with Inslee Clark.”
Clark, who became the director of admissions at Yale in 1965, essentially blew down the doors to the old boys’ club of college admissions. Working with the University’s liberal president, Kingman Brewster, he argued that Yale should seek out the most qualified candidates from around the country rather than focusing on elite prep schools populated by students with appropriate social upbringings.
Clark’s initiatives, recounted Syverud, caused an uproar. Furious Yale alumni appealed to Brewster and the Yale Corporation to revoke its new liberal policies. Their argument, they felt, was simple: The new, diverse class of students lacked the necessary background to become solid leaders. In response, Clark avowed that the leaders of the future would emerge from untraditional sectors of society. Brewster agreed. As an undergraduate in the late 1930’s, he once wrote in the Yale Daily News, “The world we shall live and work in is being refashioned. Parts of the Yale machinery that are rusty with complacency and stiff with tradition will have to be hauled out and re-examined.” As President, Brewster’s position enabled him to implement these lofty ideals by revolutionizing the University’s recruitment policy.
Decades later, however, the percentage of private school students at Yale remains a point of contention. In an e-mail urging students to apply for the Student Ambassadors program, a representative from the Asian American Students Association stated, “Anyone who cares at all about Yale branching out beyond its feeder prep schools needs to pay attention. Even if you went to a feeder prep school.” While the financial, ethnic, and geographic spread of Yale students— Quinlan pointed out that the student body now “consists of students from all 50 states in addition to 74 countries outside of the United States”—has grown remarkably, the ratio between students from public and private schools is still unbalanced. Currently, just over half of the student body comes from the public school system, a percentage that hardly reflects the national makeup; according to the 1990 census, 88 per cent of American youths were enrolled in public school. Some private institutions even send more students to Yale than entire states—Harvard-Westlake, a private school in California, sent twelve students to Yale in 2003, as opposed to eight from the entire state of Indiana. Quinlan argued, however, that this figure is no longer a consequence of recruitment policy, but instead reflects the number of applications.
“One of the larger factors in determining territories is actually the number of applications that an area will produce each year,” he said. “Admissions officers are not only responsible for traveling to their territories, but also for reading all of the applications from those areas. Once an officer receives their territory, they are able to use a variety of research tools, past advice, and statistics to determine what schools or cities to visit in their territory.” As a result, some officers have to stretch visits across broad geographic regions in order to sift through as many applications as a coworker assigned to a handful of private institutions.
Baolu Lan, a senior who attended the prestigious Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, adds that the inflated number of students from institutions like Andover may simply reflect the nature of the schools themselves. “I think that the high caliber and wide-ranging diversity of the best students from these extremely selective boarding schools justify the proportion of them,” she said. “Andover selects students from all around the country who are at the top of their classes and show exceptional promise at an early age: Yale is essentially admitting kids from a prescreened applicant pool.” Lan affirmed that the relation is correlative, not causal.
Still, there in an undeniable disparity between how far Yale goes to establish a presence for itself at different schools. “In addition to Yale’s annual visit to our school, I’m pretty sure that there was other communication,” said junior Katie Kadue, an alumna of Harvard-Westlake. “The guidance counselors were evasive about how close their ties were with colleges, but they all had experience on the other side of the admission process, and they seemed to have ‘special relationships’ with college admissions officers, which usually meant they had insider information.” Jack Facemyer, also a junior, attended a low-income public high school in Pinelands, New Jersey. “No Yale admissions officers ever came to my high school,” he said, “and there were never any information sessions. My only contact with Yale was my interview with an alumnus in the area and my visit to campus.”
For students in areas that are scantily populated by Yale alumni, a visit from a Student Ambassador may be their first contact with the University—a weighty role for an undergraduate to play. On my own return to my high school, I arrived expecting a figurative victory lap but left feeling as though I’d been dragged down the bleachers. Although undeniably bright-eyed, the students I spoke to needed more help than I could provide. When faced with an application process in which a single admissions officer seems to be the judge, jury, and executioner, an 18 year-old is desperate for someone—anyone—to be his or her college counselor, SAT tutor, and essay editor.
Evidently, the greatest discrepancy between Kadue and Facemyer’s experiences isn’t actually caused by their interactions with the University before matriculation, but rather the stark disparity between their respective high schools—an inequality that lies out of the direct reach of Yale Admissions. Lan recalled, “Our College Counseling Office was a full-fledged and extremely professional operation, with its own offices, interview rooms, and extensive counseling resource library.” As a high school junior, she and her classmates were each “assigned an advisor who communicated with us closely throughout the next twelve months, wrote us recommendations, collaborated with our professors when possible, and did his or her best to make our application the best that it could be. [There was] a dedicated team of advisors who were conversant with the American college admissions climate and understood the process from an insider’s perspective.” Facemyer paints a different picture of the application process. “There were four guidance counselors for my school, which has a little over one thousand students. One student applied to Yale—myself—and one girl went to U Penn. No one else even applied to Ivy League schools that year, and I was the only person from my school ever to go to Yale.”
His assessment points to the larger problem at hand; in a world where class often determines access to such tools as college counselors and SAT preparation courses, students from lower incomes often lack the necessary means to compete in the admissions process. Syverud noted that “admissions policy says that background is important, but it’s been proven that there’s no admissions advantage for students from lower income backgrounds. We need to target these applicants, but it’s difficult because we use need-blind admittance.”
The question of how Yale can compensate for this deficit—or if it is the University’s job to do so at all—is a motivating force behind the Student Ambassador program. According to Syverud, the project is “a way to recognize that students who aren’t from prep and feeder schools don’t receive the same sort of help. Their guidance counselors aren’t calling Yale Admissions to brag about them. They deserve a leg up.”
The mechanism they hope will enact this “leg up” is not a change in the admission process, but rather an increased attention to disseminating information about Yale into the hands of a broader audience. The Student Ambassadors sent out over Thanksgiving Break will be urged to spread a specific communiqué to the masses: Yale has a lot of money, and it wants to give it to you.
“[We] created the Ambassadors Program to send a message that higher education is an affordable option for all high school students, no matter their income levels,” said Quinlan, who called the initiative an outgrowth of the University’s recent financial aid developments. “Financial aid policy, especially a hundred per cent need-based financial aid and our new enhancements for low-income students and families, is definitely something we want to talk about and explain as we recruit.” The new enhancements that Quinlan alludes to are part of recent sweeping changes in Yale’s financial aid offerings. Last spring, members of the Undergraduate Organizing Committee staged a campaign for such changes that culminated in February with a sit-in at the Office of Undergraduate Admissions. Although many of the protesters are still pushing for more reform, the new policy is indisputably far-reaching. In March, the University announced that, as of this year, it would no longer require any financial contribution from families with total incomes under $45,000 a year, as well as providing generous packages to those earning less than $60,000. The website for the admissions office now boasts, “The 2005- 2006 academic year marks an important milestone year for Yale’s undergraduate financial aid program.”
For Syverud, these changes are not a conclusion to the battle for closing the education gap, but rather a means to an end. “I firmly believe that a discussion of financial aid at Yale should also deal with the issue of high school recruitment, because the two are related,” he said. “I’d like Yale to be at the forefront of reaching out to lower income students. I think that, coupled with Yale’s new financial aid policy, this program will potentially set off changes in other Ivy League schools. I bet Harvard will make large scale changes to its own policies, and I’d be surprised if they don’t also implement a more comprehensive recruitment program.”
In addition to emphasizing Yale’s commitment to pursuing students from low income backgrounds, the joint force of the YCC and the admissions office is also working to support applicants from under-represented schools by building relationships with those schools. One of its aspirations is to implement a program in which incoming students would nominate teachers from their high schools for University recognition. Syverud added, “We’re also trying to build outreach to guidance counselors, who have better opportunities to interact with the students. We want them to know how important this is to Yale.”
Critics of the admissions office might ask how important low-income recruitment actually is to Yale. Why, for example, is the University sending undergraduate students to previously unrecognized schools instead of divesting admissions officers from saturated areas? Syverud and Quinlan are quick to point out that the admissions staff is already spread thin across the country, reading nearly twenty thousand applications for the Class of 2009, and both cite the advantages that a Student Ambassador brings to the table.
Lauren Ezell, a Student Ambassador who has been assigned to speak at a public magnet high school in Tennessee, agreed. “A student’s perspective is perhaps more candid,” she said. “The students selected for the job are probably as qualified to ‘sell’ the school as an admissions officer.” Syverud added to this statement, “I think it’s more effective to hear someone from your area with a similar experience to yourself. Students are also often more straightforward, because they lack the sort of mandatory ‘company loyalty’ of admissions officers, who are ultimately Yale employees.”
Whether students will be sold by recruiters who may be only two or three years their senior is yet to be determined. In December, the YCC and the Yale admissions office will assess the success of the program, after the Ambassadors return to Yale with questions, anecdotes, and lists of interested students. While an evaluation of these student experiences, and the responses of the schools selected for the program are determinants of the program’s success, Syverud suggested that the overarching goals of the project are larger in scale.
“There are two clashing principles at play here, and Yale needs to decide which one it wants to subscribe to,” he said. “The first is that we can use this program to find the diamonds in the rough—spectacular applicants who will come, be accepted, and perform excellently. The other goal is to change the admissions process beyond Yale. To pursue that will be difficult, because Yale ultimately works to benefit Yale.”
Syverud hopes to continue to address the inequalities that students from different backgrounds face in the application process, including holding a conference where primary figures in higher education discuss the matter. He concluded, optimistically, “I think that people care a lot about the issue, because education is supposed to be a mechanism for social mobility. It’s Yale’s job to ensure that we match that promise.”
The extent to which this promise can be realized by a group of fresh-faced undergraduates eager to spread the Yale gospel remains to be seen. In my own experience, it was worth taking the time to speak—albeit in a nervous and ill-prepared manner—to a group of students who might not otherwise be exposed to Yale. I walked away from my session with a belief in the importance of expanding recruitment, and a renewed appreciation for the help that I received when applying to college. Several months later, the boy in the suit and the oversized glasses wrote me to say that he was walking away from our high school with letters of acceptance to Harvard and Yale.
Mina Kimes, a junior in Davenport College, is Production Manager of TNJ.