17 Feb 2013

Elite Universities and Money

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The Berkeley College Dining Hall at Yale

The Yale Daily News recently did a feature exploring what life is like for meritocratic recruits from financially disadvantaged backgrounds at Yale.

MacBooks. Dooney & Bourke bags. MoMA and the Met. These were the things that [she didn’t have, that Shanaz Chowdhery ’13] says, set her apart.

It didn’t take long for [her] to notice that people were different at Yale. “There was all this cultural capital that people seemed to have,” she says.

Where she was from, no one read The New Yorker on Sundays.

The differences weren’t just cultural, either: Chowdhery recalls her shock at seeing girls walking around campus with $100 handbags.

After she noticed that so many students here used Macs, she says, she looked up the price and couldn’t believe her eyes. Her classmates were lounging on Old Campus with $2,000 laptops.

Chowdhery’s father put her generic Windows laptop on a credit card. She believes he was paying it off her entire freshman year.

Even after being admitted, many students from lower-income backgrounds feel socially aloof from their wealthier classmates.

For Leonard Thomas ’14, feelings of difference and isolation were the largest obstacles to overcome as he transitioned from life in Detroit to being a student at Yale. “I felt poor here,” he says. “I didn’t necessarily feel poor in Detroit because I wasn’t the extreme case.

“I’m an extreme case of poverty here.”

David Truong ’14 still remembers what it was like to move into his freshman dorm. As he watched a suitemate buy a TV stand, a TV and an Xbox without hesitation, he cringed while paying for clothes hangers and plastic storage bins for his room. That first weekend when everyone was getting to know each other, Truong struggled with suite discussions about splitting the cost of a couch. The expectation that everyone would be contributing to the cost of furnishing the suite, while he thought it fair, was an adjustment.

That expectation of spending does not disappear after move-in weekend. Jennifer Friedmann ’13 says that Yale has a “culture around money.” “You were expected to be able to go out to dinner,” she said. “If I had a coffee date with someone, it was expected that everyone was buying coffee and that it wasn’t a financial burden for anyone.” But Friedmann did not want the fact that she was on financial aid to interfere with her ability to socialize with anyone on campus, regardless of socio-economic background. By shopping at thrift stores, she says she found it more feasible to “be a social person on this campus without making people feel weird about me being on financial aid.”


I can remember friends of mine doing the thrift shop thing, and sometimes finding some really excellent Harris Tweed sport coats at derisory prices, back during the Cretaceous Period, when I was at Yale.

I grew up in an economically-depressed mining town in Northeastern Pennsylvania and got a full scholarship to Yale, so I’m personally quite well acquainted with the kind of experiences described in the Yalie Dailey’s feature.

I was well-insulated from social insecurity by personal arrogance and family pride, but financially I was a total idiot. I had never previously had a checkbook, and the Yale Coop presented you on arrival as a freshman with a credit card (and access to a store full of books and records).

My approach to poverty at Yale was to join in happily with the revels of my more-affluent classmates and perhaps even to cut a bit more of a dash than some of those. Like Mr. Micawber, I assumed all that financial stuff would work itself out somehow or other. However, the dour Puritan prep school regime extended onward into college life in those days, and fiscally-irresponsible black sheep like myself faced unlimited possible forms of vengeance at the hands of their residential college deans.

Inevitably, I found myself, before long, out of Yale, back in Pennsylvania in disgrace, and now classified 1-A by Richard Nixon’s draft board.

When I returned to Yale, several years later, I accidentally became involved in operating a successful film society, which happily provided me with the kind of income I needed to survive.

The Yale Daily News, I think, is basically correct in noting that naive and immature adolescents from extremely provincial backgrounds, however talented, are going to run into some real adaptation issues if they decide to accept the gold-engraved invitation to jump into the great big pond of elite university education, and not everyone will adapt.

I was one of six meritocratic Yale admissions accepted into a special Early Concentration in Philosophy program. Of our six oh-so-gifted young men, four got kicked out of Yale. Two of the four were eventually re-admitted. The other two never came back, and have never been heard from by the rest of us again. There has always been a pretty high casualty rate in the meritocracy.


And, speaking of finances and Ivy League schools, Brown, it seems, is now charging $57,232 plus a bunch of add-on fees. Whew!

But, hey! Sex change operations and nudity workshops come with that.

Hat tip to the Barrister.

2 Feedbacks on "Elite Universities and Money"


Wow! “Richard Nixon’x draftboard”. Not Kennedy’s and Johnson’s crazy Asian war but “Richard Nixon’s draftboard”. Maybe it is all about the point in time when you become aware. I was 1A during Lyndon Johnson’s draftboard period. Johnson was probably our worst president since FDR and did more harm the FDR. Kennedy was just too naive and too young for the job and his mistakes (of which there were many) were the result of mere ignorance. But Johnson knew what he was doing and screwed us.


To be fair, at those prices the Brown undergraduate might need the sex change operation and nudity workshop to make his nut each year.

I just remembered the short-lived series ‘Wonderfalls’, all about a Brown graduate who returned to her hometown to work in a souvenir store. With a bad attitude and a bit of possible insanity, of course.


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