UP CLOSE: How Yale recruits low-income students

How Yale recruits low-income students

Published on April 24, 2018

“It has been a long-standing concern of the admissions office that Yale has difficulty reaching prospective applicants in lower-to-middle income and impoverished families,” an article reads. “The very poor tend to be completely intimidated by the price tag of a Yale education, and their high school guidance counsellors rarely encourage them to consider Yale — even with the possibility of a sizable scholarship.”

That passage appeared in an article published in the News more than half a century ago, in the wake of Yale’s decision in 1966 to adopt a need-blind admissions policy, making it the first private research university in the United States to do so. Many other institutions soon followed suit, and, more recently, Yale and many other universities have changed their financial aid policies to require no parental contribution from families in certain income brackets.

But, today, so many years later, this concern persists. A year does not go by without major news outlets publishing new studies and articles about high-achieving, low-income students “undermatching” with colleges and applying to less selective universities, despite high test scores, good grades and impressive achievements that would make them competitive candidates for Yale and peer institutions. According to research published in 2013 by a team of economists, more than 50 percent of high-achieving, low-income students in the U.S. do not apply to a single selective institution — a figure that illustrates the extent of the misconceptions about the affordability of universities like Yale.

To tackle the problem, Yale employs a multitude of outreach strategies that target high-achieving, low-income students, and the University has seen a consistent increase in their enrollment over the past several years. Yale has also joined forces with other institutions to dispel misconceptions about affordability and to enroll and graduate more low-income students.

Still, with an estimate of around 25,000 to 35,000 high-achieving, low-income students in each graduating class in the U.S., it is unclear what it would take to fully solve the problem of access to better higher education for such graduates. For all Yale’s accomplishments, there remains a need for a more concerted effort among U.S. institutions to attract and graduate these students.


In 2013, the economists Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery published a paper that focused on “The Missing ‘One-Offs’” in college admissions — high-achieving students from under-resourced high schools and low-income districts. The researchers found that there were between eight and 15 times as many such students as college admissions staff around the country had previously believed, and that, when such students did apply to highly selective institutions, they were admitted and graduated at the same rate as their higher-income peers.

One of the factors keeping those students from attending elite institutions was that many attended high schools that universities did not typically visit, Hoxby and Avery found. As a result, information that could dispel many misconceptions about attending elite institutions never reached students.

The main misconception many students harbor about attending universities like Yale concerns the costs of attendance and of applying. According to Hoxby and Avery’s research, while higher-income students tend to favor schools with higher sticker prices, since they assume those schools have more resources per student, low-income applicants tend to avoid such institutions. And with the estimated full cost of attendance hovering around $70,000 in the past few years, Yale has consistently had one of the highest sticker prices in the country.

“I remember getting a letter in March of junior year regarding Yale,” said Timothy Ryan ’20, next year’s co-president of A Leg Even, a student organization that works with first-generation and low-income Yalies to combat the challenges they face at the University. “For me, this was the first time when I actually realized just how feasible Yale would be if I were to get in. … There isn’t much information out there.”

Although institutions like Yale have had generous financial aid policies for a while, said Katherine Pastor-Lorents — a counselor at Flagstaff High School, a school in Arizona with a relatively high percentage of low-income students that Yale visits yearly — students often stop thinking about attending Yale when they see the sticker price. But Pastor-Lorents said visits from university representatives can alleviate such fears.

Still, with thousands of schools around the country, personal university visits are not always feasible, which makes spreading the word more difficult. Yuridia Nava — a school counselor at Riverside Polytechnic High School in California, another school with a high percentage of low-income students, which Yale does not visit — said that because students at her school have more difficulty meeting admissions officers or other university representatives, they do not feel they can attend top universities. Because of that, many do not bother applying and end up at community colleges or “safety schools,” she said.

“Not only in my home, but also no one in my high school was really telling me to apply to a place like [Yale],” said Laura Plata ’19, current co-president of A Leg Even, who applied to Yale through QuestBridge, a nonprofit that connects high-achieving, low-income students with top-ranking universities. “I had the GPA, I had the leadership skills, I had the ACT, it was all there. But even when I spoke to my own counselor, the most I heard was, ‘You might get into Northwestern, but that’s a long shot.’”

A lack of encouragement from school counselors is another problem students in under-resourced high schools often face. The American School Counselor Association recommends a student-to-counselor ratio of 250-to-1. The actual national average for the 2014–15 academic year — the most recent data available — was almost twice that: 482-to-1. Often overworked and underfunded, public school counselors on average devote only 22 percent of their time to college counseling, whereas their counterparts in private schools spend 55 percent of their time doing so, according to the 2015 data from the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Nava added that often, parental fears also prevent students from applying to more selective institutions. Many parents from lower incomes and who have not gone to college themselves, she said, “lack the knowledge of what these schools represent” and are afraid to send their children away for school because, for example, they lack the money to pay for the winter clothing necessary on the East Coast. Nava said that a lack of university outreach to parents perpetuates the issue.

Both Nava and Pastor-Lorents said that in their experiences advising high schoolers from low-income backgrounds, the students also often think they aren’t good enough for selective institutions or believe they would struggle to fit in for reasons as minor as the way they dress. The “myth about Ivy League schools,” Pastor-Lorents said, has persisted for so long that breaking it down will likely take some more time.


There are many high-achieving, low-income students who never think to apply to Yale. But for more than half a century, the University has been implementing policies designed to remove some of the obstacles that keep such students from applying and matriculating.

In the 1950s, Yale had just six or seven admissions officers, all of whom reached out almost exclusively to prep schools, according to longtime Yale administrator Sam Chauncey ’57. Before 1966, each application to Yale was marked with either an “S” for “scholarship” or “N” for “nonscholarship.” The admissions committee knew exactly how much financial assistance each student applying for aid would require given their specific needs.

But in 1963, Kingman Brewster became University president, bringing with him a team of younger administrators, including Chauncey and R. Inslee Clark Jr. ’57, who became the dean of undergraduate admissions in 1965.

“You have what I call the ‘changeover from old guard to new,’” Chauncey said. “People had a new view of what Yale ought to be. Yale ought to be a national university, seeking students from national and, later, international areas, and it’s got to be men and women, black and white, rich and poor — everything.”

When Clark took the helm of the admissions office, he doubled the number of admissions officers, mobilized alumni across the country to visit high schools previously overlooked by Yale and started taking Yale students on the road whenever the admissions officers traveled to other parts of the country, Chauncey said. In February 1966, the Yale Corporation officially approved the new administration’s proposal to make the University’s admissions process need-blind.

The class of 1970, which came to the University in the fall of 1966, was Yale’s most diverse ever. Almost 60 percent of students came from public high schools, the largest number in the University’s history up to that point. The class also had the largest number of minority students and considerably fewer legacy admits — only 37 percent of the sons of Yale College alumni who applied were admitted. And for the first time, the rate of matriculation for applicants on financial aid outpaced that of students not on financial aid.

“By 1970, the student body really changed,” Chauncey recalled. “There was still ‘the face of Yale,’ but underneath we had a very different population.”

Still, at the time, Yale’s financial aid package almost always included some type of a loan, he said, making it different from the institution students know today.

Another slate of changes to financial aid and the socioeconomic diversity of the student body came about 40 years later. In 2004–05, according to Admissions Office data from the time, 31 percent of undergraduates had to take out student loans and the “sample parent contribution” for a student whose parents made between $20,000 and $40,000 a year was $2,000. But in February 2004, Harvard eliminated any parental contribution for students and families earning less than $40,000 a year and substantially decreased parental contributions for families earning between $40,000 and $60,000. Yale students and administrators took notice and began to consider similar changes.

In the summer of 2004, then-University President Richard Levin told the Yale Alumni Magazine that he had “mixed feelings” about Harvard’s policy, but that he had assembled a task force to review Yale’s financial aid policies.

“I wonder whether it is in fact a step forward to say, ‘Now it’s free,’” Levin told the magazine, explaining that most parents earning less than $40,000 a year already paid a very small sum for their children’s Yale degrees. “In my view, families ought to have a stake, however small, in their children’s education.”

But in March 2005, Yale announced sweeping financial aid reforms. The University eliminated the expected parental contribution for families with incomes less than $45,000 and decreased it for families with incomes between $45,000 and $60,000. At the time, Levin told the News that he decided to decrease the parental contribution after seeing a substantial increase in low-income applicants to Harvard.

Immediately following the changes — in May 2005 — Yale saw an unprecedentedly high yield to the class of 2009, with 1,340 students choosing to matriculate from a pool of 1,880 admitted applicants, representing 72 percent of admits. From 2004–05 to 2007–08, the average need-based scholarship for first years who qualified increased by almost $7,000, according to the Office of Institutional Research, while the cost of tuition and room and board rose by only $5,000 during the same period.

Since then, Yale has significantly changed its financial aid policies twice, both times following in the footsteps of Harvard. In January 2008, Yale eliminated parental contribution for families with incomes less than $60,000; started requiring families earning between $60,000 and $120,000 to pay only 0–10 percent of their yearly incomes toward tuition, room and board; and allowed families making between $120,000 and $200,000 to contribute only 10 percent of income. The last large overhaul to the financial aid policy came in 2010, when the University raised the $0 parental contribution bar from $60,000 to $65,000 annually and announced that families earning between $65,000 and $200,000 would be required to contribute between 1 and 20 percent of their income toward tuition, room and board.

Since then, Yale has also expanded its financial aid initiatives to include $2,000 start-up grants for first years with the highest financial need and $600 annual grants for those students for the next three years, as well as covering hospitalization insurance costs, which this academic year amounted to $2,332 per student.


Yale and its peers have changed dramatically in the past 50 years. Still, many high-achieving, low-income students do not consider Yale in their college searches because they and their families are not aware of the shifts that have occurred.

To battle those misconceptions, Yale employs multiple outreach strategies that specifically target students who may consider the University to be out of reach.

Like other institutions, Yale buys test score information both from the ACT and the College Board to identify prospective applicants, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions and Financial Aid Jeremiah Quinlan said. Yale has three main outreach programs that target high-achieving, low-income students: travelling consortiums with other institutions, the University’s flagship Student Ambassador program and a direct mailing campaign to low-income students.

Yale also communicates with guidance counselors in high schools throughout the country — by sending information about Yale’s financial aid and diversity to counselors on its mailing list prior to student ambassador visits, as well as sending it with any admissions officer who goes on the road, according to Director of Outreach and Communications Mark Dunn.

“We have a good number [of high-achieving, low-income students] in our applicant pool, but keeping that quality and quantity requires constant work because every year it’s a new set of students and a new set of parents and a new set of communities,” Quinlan said.

Yale often goes on the road with Harvard University, Princeton University, Wellesley College and the University of Virginia, Quinlan said. Until about 2006–07, traveling to high schools alone was “the main strategy” for Yale’s outreach to students, he added. However, he said, most students who came out for presentations exclusively about Yale “were already committed to [the University].” Travelling alongside peer institutions allows the office to spread the word about Yale and college affordability to more students, which is “better for the student and better for [Yale],” Quinlan said.

Admissions officers themselves, though, are not the only ones travelling on Yale’s behalf. In 2005, Quinlan, then acting director of student outreach and senior assistant director of admissions, created the Student Ambassador program in the wake of Yale’s sweeping financial aid reforms. During breaks, ambassadors, who are current Yale students, visit schools close to their home communities with potential high-achieving, low-income applicants and tell high schoolers more about Yale and its affordability.

“We wanted to reach as many high schools as possible [with] students who are currently at Yale who are from the area … to try and emphasize the fact that there are students like [those high schoolers] at Yale,” Quinlan said.

In the first year of the program, Yalies visited 249 schools. This academic year, that number was 860.

The increase has resulted mainly from the more robust data available to the admissions office today, Dunn said. In the first years of the program, the admissions office had to rely primarily on the experience of admissions officers who visited the schools themselves or read applications from them, and sometimes they struggled to assign even one or two schools for each ambassador to visit. That has changed in the past five years, since the office started cross-referencing the addresses of roughly 70,000 to 80,000 prospective applicants with the information available about their U.S. census block.

Dunn added that although the data is imperfect, since having high test scores and living in an area with an income below national median do not necessarily translate to “high-achieving” and “low-income,” it’s better than nothing. With census block data at its disposal, the admissions office can now identify more schools for ambassadors to visit by looking at a list of schools in the system within a 30-mile radius of their hometowns.

All ambassadors receive training before conducting their visits, Dunn said. But there is only one mandatory component to their presentation: talking about Yale’s financial aid policies. Everything else depends on what ambassadors themselves want to highlight about their Yale experiences.

Frances Harris ’18, an ambassador from Alaska, said that she had been to schools where people had never heard of Yale. Other students, she said, wanted to leave the room at the beginning of her presentations because they thought Yale was too expensive and sitting through her talk would be a waste of their time. Ultimately, though, those students became interested.

Eli Westerman ’18, a student from rural Arkansas who has served as an ambassador since arriving at the University, said that in his part of the country there is no “institutional or cultural knowledge” about places like Yale. He praised the program for giving high school students a better look at selective institutions.

“I feel like we’re in this great exciting cycle now where we’ve been able to assign more schools to ambassadors, which means more successful visits have occurred, which means that more ambassadors … tell their friends to do it, and so we get more ambassadors and more schools and more outreach than we did before,” Dunn said. “It’s been exciting to me, and for me identifying the data behind it was the key piece in unlocking the potential that was left in the program.”

Although it is difficult to track whether ambassador visits had an impact on the number of applications from those high schools, Dunn said, the applications Yale did receive tended to support the admissions office’s assumption that the schools would have relatively high numbers of high-achieving, low-income applicants.

Another program made possible by more robust data is the admissions office’s postcard campaign. Since 2013, Yale has sent out postcards detailing its financial aid policies and application rules to thousands of high-achieving, low-income students across the country. The idea for the mailing campaign, Quinlan said, came straight from the 2013 Hoxby and Avery research and a follow-up piece by Hoxby and Sarah Turner, which showed that low-cost interventions like sending postcards with information about affordability can make a difference in the behavior of low-income applicants.

Today, around 32,000 such students receive a five-piece mailing during their junior year of high school — “a search letter” explaining how the University got the student’s name and telling more about Yale, two postcards about Yale’s financial aid policies, a letter from a current student talking about their experience applying to Yale as a first-generation college student and, in August, a card detailing how to apply for an application fee waiver.

Every card is marked with QuestBridge’s logo to make students less skeptical of its message, Dunn said, as the admissions office understands that mentioning a neutral third-party gives the mailing credibility. The card also contains the link to a website that gives prospective applicants information on MyInTuition — a quick financial aid estimator for families, which Yale adopted this January — links to application advice and more information on Yale’s financial aid policies and a comparison between Yale’s median net price for students on financial aid and the average cost of attending an in-state public institution for students on financial aid.

Dunn added that the University does not conduct any direct outreach to students before their junior year of high school in order not to “drum up the applications.”

“The idea is to wait so that people don’t get the sense of, ‘I’m a freshman at high school and Yale wants me,’ which could have some unintended consequences in terms of students developing their search lists,” Dunn said.

Based on the numbers, the outreach strategies seem to be working for the University, even if change seems slow to some. From the class of 2015 to the class of 2021, the number of incoming first years who receive Pell Grants — subsidies the federal government provides to students with financial need — or who are first-generation college students increased by almost 100 and the percentage of such students in each incoming class has risen almost every year.

Last year, Quinlan added, students who would be the first in their families to attend college comprised around 20 percent of Yale’s applicant pool. Now, his main goal is to maintain the number of high-achieving, low-income students in Yale’s pool, though he would like to see the percentage increase. If Yale’s applicant pool overall were to expand again, however, Quinlan would rather that expansion be from “not just the sort of the students who have been traditionally applying to Yale,” he said. The rise in applications from lower-income neighborhoods in recent years has outpaced the overall growth in applications, he added — this year, the former grew by about 10 percent, the latter only by 7 percent.

If Yale were to stop conducting outreach, Quinlan said, applications from would-be first-generation college students would likely be the first to drop off.


Aside from conducting its own outreach, Yale has been working with multiple nonprofits to expand access to colleges for high-achieving, low-income students throughout the country.

“I really see this work as being part of a larger national conversation, national initiative to ensure that all kinds of selective institutions with high financial aid and high graduation rates are really working to enroll and graduate more of these students,” Dunn said. “I’m very conscious that what we do at Yale is very important … but Yale is just one and a relatively small part of a much larger ecosystem.”

One of Yale’s oldest and closest partnerships is with QuestBridge. Yale has worked with QuestBridge’s National College Match, a program that helps talented students gain admission to and full scholarships at 40 partner colleges since 2007, and has consistently increased the number of QuestBridge finalists it admits. Between 2011 and 2013, the average was 75–80; in 2016, it was more than 160.

QuestBridge conducts its own outreach to prospective high-achieving, low-income applicants and sends letters and emails to students together with its partner colleges “to show students those schools are interested in them and support them,” according to Ana McCullough, QuestBridge’s co-founder and CEO. Last year the organization had more than 15,500 applicants for the National College Match program, McCullough said.

QuestBridge also works with high school juniors through its College Prep Scholars program, which allows students to spend time on university campuses over the summer, including through Yale’s Young Global Scholars Program, and get a head start on college applications.

“We’ve seen just how genuine and sincere a lot of the colleges are about diversifying their campuses, as well as providing support and investing in the students’ ability to thrive, and I think that sometimes students and communities do not get those messages,” McCullough said. “I do feel that colleges have improved, I think that we progressed, but I think there is a lot more to do.”

Furthermore, as part of its efforts, Yale partnered with Matriculate, a nonprofit organization, co-founded by Madeline Kerner ’07, that helps low-income students apply to top colleges by connecting them with student advisers. Since the spring of 2017, Yale has been providing awards for Yale students serving as Matriculate advisers. The organization works primarily with students who lack access to high-quality, in-person advising, Kerner said.

Matriculate’s Advising Fellows conduct virtual sessions, help applicants create a balanced college list and work on other parts of their applications and also try to help them build self-advocacy skills, according to Sara Harris ’19, who was admitted to Yale through QuestBridge and now serves as an advisor for Matriculate. Matriculate’s Advising Fellows train for more than 50 hours over the course of their fellowship to better serve their students, Kerner said. She added that the organization has already worked with over 1,500 high school students across the country since its inception in 2014.

“We believe talented, low-income students are our future leaders, and it is in all of our interests to make sure they have a shot at pursuing their dreams,” Kerner added.

On a larger scale, in 2016, Yale became one of the founding members of the American Talent Initiative — a coalition of universities that aims to increase the number of low-income students enrolled in top institutions by 50,000 by 2025. The American Talent Initiative is open to colleges and universities that consistently graduate at least 70 percent of their students in six years. Out of 290 eligible institutions, 100 have already become members of the initiative.

Elizabeth Pisacreta, a senior researcher at Ithaka S+R, which co-leads the American Talent Initiative with the Aspen Institute, said the initiative was founded with the idea that “talent is equally distributed across the income distribution, but opportunity isn’t.” Members of the initiative make outreach, recruitment and retainment commitments and share information on the best outreach policies. Pisacreta added that the American Talent Initiative institutions have a lot to learn from “institutions who have historically served and served well low-income students” in the U.S.

“I think we will have a meaningful impact not just on lives and opportunities of lower-income students who will come to those universities, but on the lives of those students who would come to those campuses either way,” she said.

Pisacreta added that the work of the initiative’s members was to take a “hard look” at what barriers students are facing and figuring out how to break them.

Looking at all that Yale and other institutions have done in recent years, Quinlan said he sees early evidence of many other institutions moving in the same direction as Yale. He added that he is hopeful that universities across the country soon will offer opportunities to “hundreds and thousands more students than they had in the past from these backgrounds.”

“Yale is already bringing 100 more low-income students a year to this campus. Multiply it over four years, then multiply that across 20, 30 institutions, and you’re starting to get some serious numbers,” Quinlan said. “That being said, I think a lot of attention is paid to institutions like Yale because of our name and our history, but there is a huge missing story of how, with the lack of funding, our public institutions are not able to offer these types of opportunities to students as they have in the past. … Hopefully a lot of the national narrative can begin to focus on what we are doing to fund higher education, to keep it affordable in places that serve even more students.”

Anastasiia Posnova | anastasiia.posnova@yale.edu



Powered by