Navigating the financial divide at Yale University

Elite universities in the US must start discussions about supporting low-income students, writes Yale student Joe Peck

February 14 2019
financial divide, university, student, budget,

Part of the reason I applied to Yale University was because the student body has a reputation for being politically minded. It doesn’t matter who you are or what subject you take, these conversations are always being had in classrooms and around campus. 

Yet, there is a profound difference in the way political issues are viewed in this country and my home country of the UK. Even though students at Yale address matters of sexuality, gender and race with greater frequency and eloquence than people in Britain, there is a relative lack of discussion about economic inequality.

When I first arrived at Yale 16 months ago, I assumed that this tendency was a short-term reaction to the current government. As the news cycle rolls on with one mad story after another, it is hard to keep track of the underlying problems in society.

But the surprising absence of economic issues is nothing new. From speaking to a fellow Brit who is due to graduate in May, I have learnt that it has been like this for some time. Economics majors and political science majors at Yale will rarely talk about economic injustices in their society, or on campus, in the way that a British student would. I didn’t understand why until recently, when I was watching an old speech by the late British expat, Christopher Hitchens.

He summed up this cultural divide more eloquently than I ever could. He argued that the US creates the illusion of a classless society; one in which it doesn’t matter how poor you are, so long as you try. In the UK, conversely, the class system is obvious. As Hitchens says, “it’s part of our instinct, as well as our education”.

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The country I am from and the one I study in are not that different: the US has a class system as strong as that in the UK. If this fact isn’t already obvious at Yale, all have to do is look at your classmates, many of whom will be wearing designer sunglasses in the summer and expensive puffer jackets in the winter.

Additionally, they should look at Yale’s admission statistics, which show the general breakdown of students’ parent income. My university, just like all the top-tier universities in the US, is not representative of the economic diversity in the US as a whole. Sadly though, many of my peers seem oblivious to these facts.

As a student from a low-income background, I find it hard to navigate university life without being at least acutely aware that most people are wealthier than me. When wealthier students have proof of their financial security printed on the label of their coat, I struggle to think of things we have in common, beyond the fact that we take the same classes and eat in the same dining hall.

Don’t get me wrong, nobody brags about wealth and everyone is respectful towards each other, regardless of background. The majority of students at Yale, like those at most other East Coast colleges, are liberal-minded and compassionate individuals.

But the lack of attention to economic inequality verges on ignorance, which is hard for students dealing with the financial burdens of student life. Textbooks for classes usually cost upward of $200, students frequently want to eat out rather than in the dining halls, and, as an international student, I have to think about the extra cost of travelling home for the holidays.

Because students at Yale, and possibly the rest of the US, don’t talk readily about economic inequality like we do in Britain, the majority of my peers don’t seem to appreciate what it’s like to be financially disadvantaged.

One of the ways I’ve managed to deal with my comparatively low economic status is by working at Yale’s International Office, answering the phones and manning the reception desk. My job has given me the freedom to eat at restaurants for a classmates birthday, or take a trip to New York with my friends, without having to worry about my bank balance.

The trouble is that working 16 hours a week sucks up time. While wealthier students might be able to spend more time writing essays and applying for summer internships, poorer students like me have to perfect a balancing act. I have to earn enough to get through the week, while ensuring that I attend all of my lectures and complete necessary assignments – the things that I was sent here to do. Both my academic and work life are necessary for me to stay at Yale, that isn’t the case for most people.

I am extremely lucky that I have found a few close friends who struggle with problems similar to mine. Whether they live in California or Macedonia, they too have to worry about their studies, a job, and the financial burden of attending university.

Universities such as Cambridge, Oxford, and UCL have exactly the same problem. Wealthier students are advantaged in the admission process and poor students are underrepresented in the student body. Recently, I read a BBC article that said Oxbridge accepts more students from the UK’s top eight private schools than almost 3,000 other state schools put together. It is a problem as large, if not larger, than that which exists at universities such as Yale, Harvard and Princeton.

However, more people in the UK seem aware of this problem, whereas Americans are not. The BBC brought national attention to the issue, but I haven’t seen a similar article on CNN, NBC or one of the major US newspapers. People in the US simply don’t acknowledge economic inequality in the same way. It caught me off guard when I started at Yale in 2017, and continues to frustrate me today.

I came here to get away from the regimented structure of the British university system. I wanted to take advantage of the academic freedom and exciting opportunities Yale offered, rather than choose only one subject to study and be stuck in the country of my birth for another three years. The academic difference I didn’t expect, however, was that economic issues would be largely untackled and people wouldn’t understand the struggle of economic inequality.

Under the illusion of a classless society, students and professors barely address what it means to be poor in modern America. Students seem unaware that there is a class system, even at Yale, and that some of their peers have financial concerns on top of their academic ones.

I worked hard to gain a place at this university, despite economic inequality, but I sometimes wonder if anyone at Yale fully understands what that means.

Read more: Four tips for managing a student budget

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