• Thu, Jan 23 - 4:30 pm ET

Yale Alumni Magazine Says Smart Students From Poor Families Are ‘Hard To Find’

I think it’s easy for students from lower incomes to feel excluded from places like Yale. I mean – who are we kidding? It’s ridiculously expensive to go there. It’s definitely not something the average student even aims for. There’s just something really unsettling about a school alumni that is so out-of-touch with that student that it produces a cover like this one:

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Yale College seeks smart students from poor families. They’re out there – but hard to find.

Wow.

The article is written by a clearly affluent alumnus. He admits, “If I had glimpsed America’s rural poor at all, it had been from the windows of swiftly moving vehicles.” The article is about the school and it’s attempts at trying to increase its “socioeconomic diversity.” He reminisces over the first student he met who was a product of this effort – who would become his roommate. He mentions seeing some of their differences melt away when he sees they have a “shared affinity for PlayStation games and Wilco albums.” But ultimately, we know his roommate will never be like him. I mean – the author is a legitimate student, and his roommate was acquired, like fruit, to fulfill diversity efforts, right?

The article itself is a pretty honest critique of how the school needs to do better to fulfill it’s obligations to reach out to a broader student body – as it culminates in this quote Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation (a progressive think tank):

“Yale, like other nonprofit private institutions, receives enormous tax breaks because it’s supposed to be serving the public interest,” he says. “To my mind, a central feature of serving that public interest is helping students from all backgrounds achieve the American Dream, and so long as very large portions of the Yale student body are coming from the most privileged backgrounds in the country, I think Yale is not serving that public purpose.” He continues: “In America, institutions of higher education are meant to promote social mobility, and right now, Yale and other leading universities aren’t serving that function. For the most part they are replicating existing inequalities.”

The point of the article seems to be a good one – but how to get past this cover? I can’t.

Maybe there are those who aren’t as sensitive as I am to things like economic disparity. But the cover is just – infuriating. The low-hanging fruit they are speaking of are people. People. Not objects to be acquired to help a college have the diverse qualities we tend to expect from schools in this century. It is an important discussion to have – but the magazine is illustrating pretty clearly that they may be too out of touch to initiate it.

(photo: Yale Alumni Magazine)

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  • Larry Drew SG

    Maria, I grew up poor (like roach apartment in shady area, son of a janitor poor). But I studied hard and went to a top-25 college. Growing up in a poor neighborhood and going to poor schools, I can completely understand where that author is coming from. It’s hard finding a needle in a hay stack.

    The cover, might seem insensitive, but it’s a brutal fact. Smart kids from poor families is very very difficult to find. And while the allegory of the low hanging fruit seems insulting, there really aren’t that many ways to paint that picture.

    And yes, there is a bit (a lot) of academic elitism there. But if you went to Yale, you probably earned it. (Unless you’re a Legacy, then you suck.)

    • AP

      I suspect some of the issue isn’t “smart” but “academically performing.” A lot of low-income kids are exposed to negative influences at school, if not at home, that make it harder for them to achieve to the point where they’d be on a top college’s radar- unless they have some epic backstory that the school can brag about on their website.

      A smart kid might succumb to an unsupportive environment, and no one would notice their potential. Or a smart kid might be deduce it’s best to opt out altogether, forsaking a dangerous high school for a GED or a tough neighborhood for the military.

  • jess

    What sort of cover did you expect them to have though? A child with their pockets turned inside out with a graduation cap on their head? I think it’s quite a good analogy for the situation.

    We grew up poor- and I am talking 6 kids to a bedroom in a housing welfare house poor. Recently my husband and I heard an ad on the radio about donating money so food trucks could go around to schools from the lowest socio economic suburbs to feed children breakfast. I clearly remember breakfast drives as a child.
    My parents were always too busy and poor to drive us to special tutoring classes, or even to take us to extracurricular sports. We were very fortunate to have an excellent source of teachers who recognized our academic skills and took their own time and money to take up scholarships.

    I don’t think Yale is looking at collecting diverse qualities for the sake of it- but trying to highlight the fact the fact that it’s true- poor people simply do not have the resources- financially or otherwise to encourage academic growth. It’s about looking past those who have easy access to academic programs- and trying to help those these programs aren’t a realistic experience for- but for whom the experience may prove to be all the more rewarding. Which really- brings us back to ignoring the low hanging fruit doesn’t it?

  • Rachel Sea

    The analogy is coarse, and the angle displays the gross privilege of the author, but the sentiment is fair. Yale is one of many schools with legacy admissions, which means their student body is partially stagnant. They are also sickeningly expensive which means only the very best of low-income students, can attend (those granted full rides, with free room, board, and transportation), whereas a broader cross section of rich kids can go.

  • Kay_Sue

    In addition to the other points made, I’m not reading the same connotation to the cover that you are, to be honest. I don’t think that “low-hanging fruit” refers to the lower income students at all. I actually kind of think, especially in the context of the article, that it actually refers to the pool of students readily available to Yale–reaching beyond the low-hanging fruit of Legacies and other higher privilege “branches” to the pools of lower income students that maybe don’t believe, no matter how smart they are, that a Yale education is attainable for them. To me, implying that low income students are “low-hanging fruit” doesn’t make sense. Low-hanging fruit is fruit that is easily picked–you don’t need a special diversity initiative to get low-hanging fruit. It falls in your lap.

    • Katia

      Yes! That is how it seemed to me too. So looks like the whole premise for this article critiqueing that article is invalid

  • Zettai

    That picture literally made me cringe. It’s not hard to find smart people in poor areas, but it’s like the joke about the blond who kept praying to win the lottery:

    “You’ve gotta help me out here and buy a ticket, sweetie.”

  • Zettai

    That picture literally made me cringe. It’s not hard to find smart people in poor areas, but it’s like the joke about the blond who kept praying to win the lottery:

    “You’ve gotta help me out here and buy a ticket, sweetie.”

    • jess

      This is an extremely ignorant statement.

      How many academic extracurricular activities do you think are available for people who struggle financially just to keep up with day to day costs. If they can barely afford to feed their children without government assistance- how do you think they will be able to afford to pay for extra classes?

      How much time do you think a single parent with 2 jobs has to take their children to extra tutoring?

      Sorry- but someone has to say it- you’re an idiot.

  • A-nony-mous

    Maybe I’m ignorant but I’ve never understood the preoccupation with ivy league schools. They’re basically a brand name and their claim to fame and being “better” than other schools seems to hinge primarily on the fact that they’ve been around longer and that’s basically it. This notion of “legacy”. But really if you look at the list of programs Yale offers and compare it to your local university or even a community college, many of them are the same. You’re just buying the brand name, not really different than insisting on paying $55 for a plain white t-shirt that you could buy for $2 from Walmart purely because the tag on the $55 says Calvin Klein or GAP on it. Wow, Economics, Film Studies, French and Psychology…no other university anywhere in the world offers those courses!

    So, as a low income person and low income parent, I could really give a shit less what Yale thinks of me or my low income child because even if I had the money I wouldn’t send my child there because I think ivy league schools basically mooch insecure people out of money for a stupid brand name for the same product other people are selling for cheaper.

    • Nica

      Respectfully disagree. I’m one of those “poor”, urban students who found her way to an Ivy League university (and, for the record, it was NOT Yale!). My sister found her way to our state college. At the end of the day, we both received excellent educations. However, in terms of resources, facilities, choices of fields of study, faculty, diversity, alumni networks and numerous other factors, there was no comparison between the two schools. My school was the clear winner. I was blessed in that my university’s pretty much bottomless endowment paid for most of my education (again, something not as available at a state school). I paid less for my degree than my sister paid for hers.

      Do I think an Ivy League school is the be all and end all? No. Is it for everyone? No. That said, I firmly believe you should attend the best school you’re able to and for many that is an Ivy League school.

    • A-nony-mous

      I can respect that. :-)

      I just get tired of the name brand game where we’re basically supposed to bow down and instantly respect and ooh and awe over those who graduate from ivy league institutions over those who get their higher education elsewhere.

      How much of what makes them better in terms of resources and facilities basically comes down to the fact that they take in a lot more money than the average state college and can buy more property, better equipment, build better facilities, pay for better connections, etc? I have a lot of qualms with equating money to quality of education because there are numerous examples and studies that, in many ways, this simply isn’t true. Celebrities have poured millions of dollars into small schools that have a college-sized budget that still flop. Some charter schools have large budgets and flop. University Preschools, which are popular in places like Manhattan, charge $40,000 or more a year under the same type of IL advertising campaign of being advanced places of “early learning” that will offer the same type of IL upper crust experience to your child that a co-op simply cannot offer. What it ends up being is actually an overinflated activity time involving glassblowing and chandling for the 18 month olds. Certainly that documentary a few years ago, Waiting for Superman, paints a bleak picture of American schools and how a school in a nice suburban neighborhood with $600,000 houses around might not actually have better teachers and/or bring the average student better grades or understanding than schools in significantly lower income areas. So I have trouble believing that if money doesn’t really guarantee success for preschool, charters, celebrity schools or high schools, how all of that suddenly disappears and changes for a few select universities.

      Didn’t we used to think the same about public vs private school? The Washington Post conducted a very lengthy and large study and found that private schools don’t actually guarantee a better education / better grades. Interestingly, this was echoed by a study in Australia where a large portion of children go to private schools which found that those children don’t actually do better on their The National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) tests than public “poor” kids.

      Anyway, I don’t mean to rant, just trying to clarify my stance and add something to the debate. :-) I personally admire anyone who does post secondary.

    • Sara610

      I also don’t think it’s as simple as that. I won’t re-hash the points that Nica made below, but I agree with much of what she said.

      Like almost everything else in the world, it’s not a black-and-white issue. I did my undergraduate degree at the University of Michigan, which is a state school. For a while I dated a modern-dance major who went to Michigan for dirt cheap because his parents had taken advantage of the tuition pre-payment program and U-M has one of the best dance programs around. For him, it would have been idiotic to go to an Ivy League school–and probably get into debt to do so–just because of the name.

      But even within state universities, there are shades of gray. I went to UM, even though I’m from Arizona, because while both schools offer the same programs, the program in my major at UA couldn’t even come close to holding a candle to what was offered at UM. The quality and expertise of the professors, the resources available, the student-teaching experience. And yes, most of that was related to the fact that UM has a lot more money than the state schools in my home state, so they’re able to retain better professors (in my major, at least) and offer better resources.

      I agree with what Nica said–you should go to the best school you can get into AND afford without taking out tons of debt that you’ll never be able to pay off. For some people, that’s an Ivy. For some, it’s a very good state school like U-M. For others, it’s the local state university. None of those is arbitrarily “better” for the right choice for all people, but the idea that Ivies don’t offer ANYTHING that smaller, less-well-endowed state schools do is erroneous.

    • Magrat

      They’ll have the same programs, it’s true, but prestigious schools are more likely to have the best faculty.

  • Sara610

    The tag line was incredibly poorly thought-out I don’t think it’s that SMART kids from poor families are hard to find, it’s that kids from poor families who have had the kind of educational foundation to ready them for intensive college-level work are hard to find. My husband grew up very poor and he had a lot of that foundation, but he was very lucky. His mom drilled the importance of education into all of them and by some stroke of luck (that a lot of poor kids in America don’t share) his poverty didn’t keep him from having access to excellent public schools.

    Having said that, it sounds like the article actually brings up some honest, tough truths about the feeble “effort” to make a high-quality college education accessible to those not born into the upper echelons of society.

    • http://www.twitter.com/ohladyjayne allisonjayne

      I agree. I think it’s the ‘smart’ line that is really irritating. You can be very smart but not perform well academically (for a whole myriad of reasons). Someone with whom I am very very close grew up quite poor (shelters, welfare, food banks) – she wasn’t encouraged to do well in school at home because it wasn’t seen as being important, she worked 30+ hours a week as a fulltime high school student because she had this weird desire to eat food on a regular basis, so no extracurriculars, was encouraged towards trades, etc etc.

  • KaeTay

    I’m in my criminology class and right now it’s talking about subcultures and their effect of the creation of gangs which leads to delinquency. It’s double edged sword. Poor parts of town typically offer a poor education. With a poor education they don’t meet the standards that our nation and states set for them (Middle-class requirements) and from frustration many drop out of school (which makes them more likely to indulge in delinquent behavior) while others just “go with the flow” and don’t feel they can overcome their surroundings. It takes a very focused individual who comes from a ghetto.. an ACTUAL ghetto to overcome it because the cards are stacked against them. But it’s not impossible.

  • Magrat

    There’s not really any such thing as “smart” in a vaccuum. The reason it’s harder to find “smart” poor kids (and I think the low-hanging fruit metaphor is very apt–like Kay_Sue said, it refers to the wealthy and legacy students that are easy for schools like Yale to find) is because it’s harder to find high schools in poor areas that prepare kids for rigorous university education. Being smart is a set of skills, and there are some people who pick them up naturally, but in general, like any other skills, they need to be taught.