The Blue-Blood Revolution

A movement to help the poorest students grows—at the Ivies

You've probably never heard of Gateway Community-Technical College. The fastest-growing of Connecticut's colleges, it occupies a former factory building on New Haven's waterfront but is due to move to a new downtown location next year. Thirty-seven percent of Gateway's 7,391 for-credit students rely on need-based grants from the federal and state government and the school itself, to fund nearly all their direct educational expenses. Eighty-eight percent of the students work, 38 percent full-time, and most are quietly chipping away at a part-time course load, stretching their enrollment out over many years. The average student is a 29-year-old, white, single working mother.

Two miles away from Gateway, on the New Haven Green, stands a better-known institution of higher education, one where the students are revolting over the cost of school. On February 24, police cleared 15 undergraduates of the Undergraduate Organizing Committee out of Yale University's admissions office, handing out $93 citations for trespassing. The sit-in for financial aid reform had lasted all day, while sympathetic students, faculty, and community members rallied outside in the frigid air—some were treated for frostbite. By the following Thursday, Yale president Richard Levin had announced that kids from families making less than $45,000 a year would no longer have to pay tuition.

The students at Gateway and the ones at Yale have shared concerns, but they're not working together. Maybe they should.

In the 1990s, American higher-education funding shifted dramatically from grants to loans, and merit-based aid grew far faster than need-based aid. These trends, combined with skyrocketing tuition, have begun to reverse several decades of widening college access for moderate-income people. We're creating a two-tier system in which working-class kids increasingly opt for two-year schools like Gateway, while higher-ranked colleges run to ever bluer blood. Harvard President Larry Summers noted in his 2004 commencement speech that only 10 percent of students at the nation's most selective colleges come from families in the entire bottom half of income distribution.

Last spring, Summers announced that families making less than $40,000 a year who have children accepted at Harvard will not have to pay one penny. This fall, applications at Harvard were up 15 percent. Yale's policy is clearly modeled on Harvard's. Princeton, Duke, and Brown all recently instituted expensive need-based aid measures. With multimillion-dollar endowments, these upper-crust schools can afford to level the playing field out of their own pockets.

Spokespeople say Yale's new move has nothing to do with student activism.

"Changes have been in the works for a while," says Gila Reinstein of the Office of Public Affairs. "We're eager to provide as much financial aid as is consistent and reasonable based on what our finances permit and what our peer institutions are doing, since we're in competition with them for the same outstanding students."

Working since last fall, the UOC united diverse factions of the campus behind financial aid reform. Eleven hundred of Yale's 5,000 undergraduates signed on to UOC's platform, which calls for matching Harvard's $40,000 offer, plus reducing student contributions. The campaign appealed to Yale's elevated sense of itself. "An institution like Yale that sets out to form future leaders should be drawing from the widest possible selection of the country," said Josh Eidelson, a junior and UOC organizer.

Financial aid students already at Yale argue that they must work so many hours that they are missing out on the full accoutrements of a world-class education, a problem the new policy does not address. Cynthia Oquendo, a junior majoring in religious studies, found that working as much as 20 hours a week—a situation that's nearly universal at Gateway—interfered with her studies. She turned to paid medical experiments, including uncomfortable hormone injections, to help make the student's standard $4,200 annual tuition contribution. But she didn't get involved with the UOC campaign until a few weeks ago, when she spoke about her experiences at Levin's forum.

"I hadn't really been involved in any activism on campus," Oquendo said. "I joined and immediately volunteered to sit in and risk being arrested."

Phoebe Rounds, a sophomore and organizer who is also on financial aid, says they are tapping the power of enlightened self-interest. "This is self-interested organizing in a positive way. We're making changes for students. . . . The campaign has made people realize the extent to which their individual struggles are shared by a large number of students."

While they are busy sharing their struggles, it would be great if the Yalies could look two miles down the road to Gateway. Eighty percent of America's college students are enrolled at public institutions, and almost half attend community colleges. While privately financed, open-door financial aid policies at America's most selective institutions pack important symbolic power, they will not broaden options for the vast majority of students. Only a sea change in federal funding policy could do that, and getting it might take a sit-in or two at a different president's office.

 
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