Category Archive '“Degrees of Inequality”'

29 Mar 2011

Comparing Yale to Southern Conn

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Richard Kahlenberg, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, reviews a book by Toronto sociologist Ann L. Mullen, looking at the differences in student demographics, life style, academic major, and expectations between Yale and Southern Connecticut State University, a nearby former Normal School (i.e., a teacher’s training school) upgraded in recent years to university status.

Mullen examines two four-year colleges located within two miles of one another: Yale University and Southern Connecticut State University. In racial terms, the two institutions are not all that different. Yale is 69 percent white, while Southern is 70 percent white. But as Mullen finds in interviews with 50 Yale students and 50 Southern students, the class divide is significant, and that difference has enormous implications for the attitudes, experiences, and expectations of students.

Mullen’s insightful new book, Degrees of Inequality, notes that Southern students tend to be the sons and daughters of “shopkeepers, secretaries, teachers, and construction workers,” about half of whom never completed college. By contrast, about 80 percent of Yale students sampled had parents with BA’s, two-thirds had some form of graduate education, and more than half came from the top 15 percent by income nationally. These students often “arrived on the back of tremendous childhood advantages.”

Among the advantages, she writes, were high parental expectations. In interviews, she writes, it was clear that most Yale students “never actually decided to go to college; it was simply the next step in their lives, one not requiring a rationale.” Although less than one percent of four- year college students attend Ivy League institutions, for some Yale students interviewed, “it was a question of which one.” She writes, “It is not simply that they aspired to attend the most elite institutions; rather, they planned on it.

Southern students, by contrast, made a conscious decision to pursue higher education and then mostly chose Southern based on “cost and convenience.” Neither factor was mentioned by a single Yale student. Over 90 percent of Yale students were from out of state, while over 90 percent of Southern students came from in-state. The Southern students never thought of applying to Yale, and the Yale students have never even heard of Southern.

The differences in opportunities and outlooks of Yale and Southern are then amplified once they reach college, Mullen finds. Yale, founded 300 years ago, has a $15-billion endowment “about two thousand times greater” than the endowment of Southern, which became a four-year institution in 1937 and became part of the Connecticut State University system in 1983.

The economic chasm between the schools and their students also drives profound differences in the experiences at each institution. To save money, only about one-third of Southern students live on campus and only 24 percent participate in extracurriculars, as many have to work 20-30 hours a week. By contrast, almost all students at Yale live on campus, and 67 percent participate in extracurriculars, from playing tennis to singing a capella.

Asked what they value most about college, Yale students tended to mention learning from friends and peers and participating in extracurricular activities. Southern students were only half as likely as Yale students to mention peers and friends.

Academic pursuits also differ greatly. Deciding on a college major is usually portrayed as a matter of individual choice, Mullen notes, but economic constraints are strongly felt. “For the Southern students,” she says, “majors represented not bodies of knowledge or academic disciplines, but rather occupational fields.” By contrast, Yale students were “quite cognizant” that their Ivy League degrees made the field of study chosen less important. One student told Mullen, “I’m getting a diploma with four letters Y-A-L-E on it. I should be able to have the sky be my limit.”

Surprise, surprise! Professor Mullen discovers the third-oldest and one of the most competitive colleges in the country attracts a more affluent and more cosmopolitan student body with larger ambitions and wider career options than those of students attending the local neighborhood’s uncompetitive teacher’s college.

Certainly a lot of Yale students come from more affluent and better educated family backgrounds, but comparing Yale and Southern most meaningfully would have to be done on the basis of academic talent. Southern’s students have average SAT scores in the 480-490 range on the three parts of the current test. Yale quotes different 25%/75% figures, which indicate that only 25% of Yale students got under 700 on any of the three parts of the SAT, and another 25% got 780 to 800. Yale admits around 7.5% of applicants these days. Southern admits 71% of applicants.

Yale students have different majors and different career options from students at Southern Conn, not because Yalies have inherited clout, but because they are, on the average, a great deal more academically competent and competitive.

In my day, Southern and Yale did interact a bit socially, most commonly via contact within the Connecticut Intercollegiate Student Legislature (CISL). Yalies dated girls from Southern, and I knew some people who married them.

Hat tip to David H. Nix.


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