UP CLOSE: Similar problems, across the world

UP CLOSE:
Similar problems, across the world

Published on April 5, 2019

Jordan Young ’21 has “no time to breathe” at Yale.

“Every day, I’m expected to be at work so I can give money back to my family, or so that I can just enjoy leisure,” he said at a Feb. 28 town hall hosted by the activist group Students Unite Now.

The February town hall gave students like Young the opportunity to describe the difficulties they faced because of the student effort portion of the financial aid — colloquially known as the Student Income Contribution — and to advocate for eliminating the requirement. Yale College Dean Marvin Chun later clarified and justified the student effort in response to student concerns at a Yale College Council town hall, citing the University’s limited budget for financial aid and emphasizing its numerous other major expenses.

Almost 9,500 miles away, Lorngdy Pon YNUS ’22 works several days a week on Yale-NUS College’s campus in Singapore, in part to help support his two younger brothers at home in Cambodia. Pon — whose mother had previously passed away — lost his father two weeks before his first-year orientation.

But since coming to Yale-NUS, Pon has also had to cover another expense. Although they reside on different campuses across the world, Young and Pon face the same challenge — having to cover the student effort portion of their financial aid package.

“I wish I could get more time,” Pon said in an interview with the News on March 19 . “I lose a lot of time and social events that I wish I could go to.”

At Yale-NUS, the Student Effort Contribution appeared in financial aid packages for the first time in the 2018–19 academic year, affecting just the incoming first-year class. While the newly implemented policy will not affect classes graduating in 2021 and prior, students receiving need-based scholarships in the classes of 2022 and subsequent years must pay S$1,500 per academic year — equivalent to about U.S.$1,100. The college expects students to earn the money from working on- or off-campus jobs during the term or over the summer.

In March, the News traveled to Singapore and spoke with six Yale-NUS administrators and staff members, six first years paying the SEC and seven other students connected to issues of socioeconomic class at the college. While some first-year students paying the contribution told the News that they understood the rationale behind the new policy, other students — both first years and upper-level students — are questioning its merits.

SHARING THE COST OF EDUCATION

Yale-NUS College, Yale’s sister school on the island-state of Singapore, is an anomaly in more ways than one.

Not only is it the first liberal arts college in the country, but it is one of the few institutions of higher education in the world that is both need-blind and meets full demonstrated need regardless of citizenship — at a school where international students comprise 40 percent of the student body. Currently, only seven U.S. colleges and universities, including Yale, are both need-blind and meet the full demonstrated need of all students.

In interviews with the News, Yale-NUS administrators stressed the college’s commitment to financial accessibility and diversity of all kinds. Just over 50 percent of students receive need-based financial aid, according to Yale-NUS President Tan Tai Yong. Yale-NUS Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Laura Severin said that the institution’s financial aid policies ensure that “there is space for students of all socioeconomic backgrounds at Yale-NUS.”

“We’re a very intentionally diverse community,” said Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Joanne Roberts. “When people look around, they say we have a lot of diversity that is visible, but we also have a lot of diversity that is less visible, because of this socioeconomic diversity.”

Yale-NUS calculates the amount of financial aid awarded to a student based on billed expenses, including tuition, residential fees and miscellaneous student fees. Students with “high financial need” may also receive a Book Allowance in their award to cover the unbilled cost of textbooks, Severin said. The new student effort contribution at Yale-NUS is applied towards billed expenses, unlike at Yale where the majority of student effort goes to cover unbilled expenses, like books and personal items.

Severin added that the total amount of the contribution is split between two semesterly bills, meaning that students pay S$750 twice a year. The amount is factored into each student’s term bill along with the student’s family contribution. Unlike at Yale, where the “student effort” portion of financial aid is lower for students from “high-need” families and first-year students, all Yale-NUS students receiving financial aid pay the same contribution regardless of the amount of aid they receive.

According to Tan, the college had been planning to introduce the contribution since its establishment in 2011 but could not immediately implement the policy because it “did not have the wherewithal” to provide a sufficient number of campus jobs for students. But as Yale-NUS and its programming and research have grown, so has the jobs base. Tan explained that jobs have been created as departments and faculty have begun seeking students to “help staff their programmes and assist them in research work or curricular work.” Tan added that most jobs pay around S$12 an hour — roughly equivalent to U.S.$9.

Tan said that the college introduced the SEC both to reinforce the idea that paying for college is a collaborative endeavor that should be shared by students and to give the college more financial flexibility. Tan did not specify how much money the college expects to raise through the SEC.

“The principle is very clear,” Tan said. “I think we first believe that the cost of education should in [a] way be shared by the school, by the state, by the families as well. I think this contribution is a way of saying that look, you are not here to stick out your hands and ask for a handout, but you are contributing partly to your own education.”

Tan added that this money ultimately “comes back to the students” in the form of better resources. The funding for the jobs comes from a variety of sources within and outside of the college — including departmental budgets and faculty research grants. But all money generated from the SEC returns to Yale-NUS’s financial aid budget “to help fund those who need it,” Tan explained.

“We don’t take the money and then say, ‘Okay, the president needs a new car,’ or that kind of thing,” he said. “It’s redistributed back to financial aid. It just makes the money travel and get optimally used in a more sort of distributive manner.”

LEVELING THE PLAYING FIELD?

When Pon first learned of the student effort requirement from his financial aid award letter, he initially thought that the college would assign him a job where he could earn enough money to fulfill the contribution. Areet Roychowdhury YNUS ’22 said that he did not realize the S$750 would be due along with the rest of his fees in October. And upper-level students like Swarnima Sircar YNUS ’19 only heard about the new policy through their conversations with puzzled first years.

“I think that we thought that we had communicated it well,” Roberts said. “But I think … we really only communicated to first-year students because they were the only ones affected. I’ll be honest — this was a mistake. Our students … advocate for one another, so our upper-year students were [thinking], ‘Hey, how come didn’t we hear about this?’ And so if I could go back in time, we would have communicated it in a more explicit way to our upper-year students.”

Sircar said that when she learned about the contribution, she and Jin Hee Lee YNUS ’21 began meeting with administrators to clarify what the contribution was and to understand why it exists. Following advocacy from older students, the financial aid office issued a set of FAQs about the SEC, made available publicly on the school’s website. Once the student body became more informed about the new contribution requirement, students began voicing their objections to it. In early November, Matas Vitkauskas YNUS ’22 wrote an op-ed criticizing the SEC in the campus newspaper, The Octant. And on Jan. 22, the Student Government’s Senate — a body that acts as a liaison between administrators and student interests, according to Senate Speaker Jiang Haolie YNUS ’21 — passed a unanimous resolution condemning the SEC for “disadvantaging already underprivileged students.”

“As a student who has an incredible respect for Yale-NUS’s financial aid policies … I see the SEC as a regression of those principles,” Sircar said. “Fundamentally, the SEC is instituting a difference in experience for students who are on financial aid, and students who are not on financial aid.”

Sircar added that she believes that the inequity of experience that the SEC perpetuates is an even bigger issue at Yale-NUS than it is at Yale because the Singaporean college deliberately aims to create a “common experience” for every first year through programs like the Common Curriculum — a set of a required courses spanning several disciplines that all first years must take.

“I think our school has been doing a really good job of trying to level the field out, which is why I don’t want this to be a barrier to that,” Lee said. “I don’t think there’s a huge divide amongst us … which is why I’m like, ‘Don’t mess this up, yo!’ Don’t mess up what’s good.”

Still, many Yale-NUS students interviewed by the News seemed more indifferent towards the contribution. Kay Lee YNUS ’22, who receives financial aid, said that she “see[s] where the administration is coming from” with the SEC, even though she believes the financial aid office should take individual financial circumstances into account to determine the SEC’s amount for each student. Anupriya Ramamoorthy YNUS ’22 also said that she understands the rationale behind the contribution but pointed out that her fall term bill was due in October — fewer than two months after the semester began — making it nearly impossible for first years to earn enough to pay their share on time, she said.

Roychowdhury said that he did not have enough money to pay his fall semester bill and felt guilty that he placed that extra burden on his parents. Similarly, Vitkauskas was not able to secure a campus job for two months and relied on his parents to pay his initial bill — but plans to cover the other ones on his own.

And although Roberts, vice president of academic affairs, told the News that Yale-NUS has a surplus of jobs, several students told the News that they had difficulty finding employment. Roychowdhury pointed out that many of the on-campus jobs — such as positions in the college’s IT department — require special skills that first-year students are not likely to have.

But Severin emphasized that not all campus jobs “require specialised skill sets or academic backgrounds.”

“At Admissions and Financial Aid alone, we hire several first-year students as our student associates across a range of roles including student tour guides [and] managing our social media channels and video productions, for example,” Severin said.

She added that the college has encouraged students to either work off campus during term time or semester breaks, or to seek assistance from the financial aid office or the Centre for International and Professional Experience if they cannot find a job. And the college is planning ways to better inform first-year students about the on-campus employment process during orientation in future years, Severin said.

THE “MENTAL PRESSURE” OF THE SEC

Yale-NUS administrators interviewed by the News stressed that if students feel burdened by the SEC, they should approach administrators and staffers to discuss their individual circumstances.

While Severin has received a number of questions about the contribution generally, she said that no students approached her to talk about their specific situation. Still, she noted that she cannot speak to whether others on the financial aid team have spoken to students individually. She added that students who are having trouble meeting payment deadlines for any reason should contact student services, and that Yale-NUS “remains committed to helping students on an individual basis for such cases.”

But Vitkauskas, who had to ask his parents for money to pay his S$750, said that he did not approach the financial aid office because he did not think that the added mental pressure he felt from having to work a job was a valid reason for seeking help.

“It’s very hard to quantify what’s the effect on the student,” Vitkauskas said. “It’s mainly the increased mental pressure on you — feeling dissatisfied, feeling pressured by your parents. … I think that’s one of the reasons why I never went to the financial aid office. … You can’t change institutional policies because of subjective people.”

In his op-ed for The Octant, Vitkauskas wrote that he experienced “constant anxiety” because he was afraid he would not save up enough for his second semester bill and did not join extracurriculars out of fear that he would “[waste] money and not [dedicate] enough time to [his] ‘paying job.’”

After his father’s death at the end of the summer, Pon said he was left with both the SEC and his family contribution to pay on his bill first semester. While he said he had enough money to pay the initial bill out of pocket, Pon stressed that he will heavily rely on campus employment in the future to pay his share.

“If I don’t have a job, I just have no backup,” Pon said.

Pon added that he did reach out to the financial aid office about the changes in his family’s circumstances to ask if they would reconsider, and possibly reduce, his SEC. He said that the office told him that there were enough jobs on campus and that paying the SEC would not be a problem if he found one.

Despite discontent among some members of the class of 2022, few affected first years are speaking out against the SEC. Instead, upper-level students such as Sircar and Lee, along with members of student government, are leading the charge to fix the problems surrounding the contribution and to eliminate the requirement altogether.

“I think because financial conversations are a great challenge here … very few freshmen actually voice their concerns regarding the SEC,” Roychowdhury said. “I think some of them don’t want to go against the college, maybe that’s why. Because they think they would face backlash, because they are also in a way privileged because they are getting this financial aid.”

While their leadership has raised the profile of the issue, Sircar and Lee both said that they feel that the fact that the SEC does not personally affect them has worked against their agenda.

“I’ve been directly questioned: ‘Why do I care about the SEC?’ … I find that very condescending and patronizing,” Sircar said. “I care about this community. I care about the people who are going to be part of this community. As an alum, I want to be able to be proud of this institution and everything that I’ve gotten from it, and the SEC directly interferes with that.”

Lee concurred. She added that she finds it “upsetting” when people question her involvement since she cares about her community and wants to be an ally to first years who are responsible for paying the contribution.

Sircar related first years’ reluctance to speak out to what she says is a culture of not expressing dissent on campus, and in Singapore more generally. She explained that at the college, people can often be dismissive toward those who are confrontational about their views, even if the points they raise are valid.

“It is a bit frowned on here to protest, in the sense that making your views known in an overly controversial and aggressive way is a surefire way to get people to be immediately dismissive of your point,” Sircar said. “That is definitely particular to the Singaporean context, just because of the way civil society has to work here, but also that’s a way that dialogue [works] at Yale-NUS. Because of that, talking about the SEC or talking about financial accessibility is difficult because it’s overtly political in a way that people do not want to get into it, or might not even care about it.”

THE “INVISIBILITY” OF CLASS

The culture of avoiding confrontation on campus has manifested in students’ unwillingness to talk not only about the SEC but also about socioeconomic issues on campus more broadly. As a result, many challenges affecting the college’s low-income population are rarely discussed — if at all.

While many colleges and universities in the U.S. have established programming, resources and affinity groups to support first-generation low-income college students, Roberts explained that similar endeavors at Yale-NUS come with added complications because of the school’s international makeup. The first-generation designation and its underlying implications are specific to the North American context, she said. While there are indeed first-generation students at Yale-NUS who face disadvantages due to their backgrounds, the variety of cultural contexts at the school means that there are also many students in similar socioeconomic situations whose parents did attend a higher education institution.

Student Government Director of Diversity and Inclusion Kristian-Marc James Paul YNUS ’19 said that when he sought to establish a support system for first-generation college students at Yale-NUS, other student government members told him that previous attempts did not work due to a lack of inclusivity. With this in mind, Yale-NUS’ student government established the “In-Betweeners” network during this academic year, which aims to provide support not only for students who are the first in their family to attend college, but also for those who may not fit into the category by definition but still feel that they face similar challenges.

In February, Olivia Dure and Jane Zhang YNUS ’18 assembled “Money Matters,” a library display featuring a collection of students’ thoughts on the meaning of money and class at the college. They work as Dean’s Fellows — recent college graduates who support students and foster community on Yale-NUS’ campus. Zhang said that they conceived the exhibit after realizing that many of the issues for which students sought support related to underlying socioeconomic factors. With this in mind, she and Dure brainstormed a way “to elevate voices of people who want to talk about [class] but don’t know how,” Zhang said.

Sircar noted that visible status symbols are not particularly prevalent on campus, making socioeconomic status less obvious to the naked eye.

“We don’t have Canada Goose jackets here,” Sircar, who studied abroad at Yale last spring, said.

Still, Sircar noted that the lack of obvious status symbols “invisibilizes” issues of financial accessibility. While low-income students are not publicly pegged as coming from less privileged backgrounds, she said that they face less noticeable issues that affect them socially, such as having to work on the weekends or avoiding extracurricular activities that cost extra money.

“I don’t think we have conversations about class enough at Yale-NUS,” Paul said. “I think that is the product, to some extent, of the lack of conversation in Singapore. … I know of people … who come from a place of financial privilege in very specific spaces because of the high schools they were in, and so class is never necessarily something that they have had to interact with in the way that … other people have had to.”

As a student at Yale-NUS, Zhang — who graduated last year — said she identified as lower-middle class and worked multiple jobs through college without her parents financially contributing to her education. Still, she found that she rarely felt comfortable discussing issues of class with her peers and had no idea how to find students of similar backgrounds.

While conversations about first-generation or low-income students occasionally popped up in “small pockets,” Zhang said the conversation was never as sustained as this year’s dialogue surrounding the SEC.

“It can feel very suffocating to have a reality that affects how you live and how you operate on campus that you can’t put your finger on why that is or why that’s different,” Zhang said. “I’ve had students come to me about a variety of things, feeling like they’re not doing well enough in classes or aren’t able to pursue different opportunities, and blaming it on themselves. … I think when the conversation starts, you start realizing it’s more than just personal. … They’ve had different access to opportunities, and I think validating that is important in helping shift conversation … [rather] than students having those battles in their own heads.”

TRADE-OFFS

Just weeks after the YCC town hall in early March, Chun, along with the senior trustee of the Yale Corporation Catharine Bond Hill GRD ’85, once again found himself in conversation with students about the student effort component of financial aid. But this time, the two were not in New Haven. Rather, Chun and Hill were in Singapore at Yale-NUS, where they both sit on the Governing Board.

In the March 18 discussion, Chun and Hill listened to an influx of student concerns and objections to the SEC, both broad and specific. Students discussed the difficulties of finding jobs, the inconvenience of billing cycle timing and first years’ reluctance to go to administrators about their individual cases. After talking over these issues, Chun and Hill told students they would pass along their concerns to the rest of the Governing Board.

When students asked the two board members whether it was possible to get rid of the contribution, both explained the SEC to students in terms of “trade-offs.”

“Eliminating something like the student effort for all students is going to be quite challenging for a budget, and it will have to entail some trade-offs, and so any discussion about the student effort probably needs to be about what trade-offs are an institution and students willing to accept,” Chun told the News a week after the session.

Tan explained that funds from the SEC are not meant to directly “generat[e] income for the College,” but rather to “ensur[e] that resources continue to feed back into the financial aid pool so that we can continue to be not just needs blind but also needs fulfilling.” The financial aid pool also funds co-payments for things like emergency support funds, Center for International and Professional Experience programming and financial support for unpaid internships — “things that less advantaged students will benefit from [having] access to,” Tan said.

And beyond giving disadvantaged students access to funds while they are at the college, the expanded financial aid budget will allow the college to sustain its need blind admissions process for years to come, administrators argue. According to a transcript of Chun and Hill’s meeting with students that was obtained by the News, Hill drew a parallel between SEC’s institution at Yale-NUS and the policies she adopted during her her tenure as president of Vassar College to explain the SEC’s necessity. She said that when Vassar eliminated loans from its financial aid and moved toward a need-blind model that allowed more students with lower family incomes to be admitted, its financial aid packages had to include a work expectation — without it, Hill said, it would have been difficult to maintain need-blind admissions.

In a March 7 interview with the News, Chun offered a similar explanation for retaining Yale’s student effort requirement.

“If [students] recognize that there are trade-offs, then the community should have a discussion as to what those trade-offs should be,” Chun said. “I just don’t see what the options are. In theory, we could reduce the number of students on financial aid; I don’t think anyone wants that. We could raise tuition on those who are paying; I don’t think anyone wants that either. … I think it’s important for students to be practical about the notion of, even in large, million-dollar scales, we all have a fixed budget — money, like what it would take to eliminate the student share, it doesn’t just come out of nowhere.”

Still, the question of whether it is better to admit more low-income students and keep the SEC or to admit a smaller number of students requiring financial aid while providing them with greater financial support is open-ended.

Ramamoorthy told the News that she understands that the contribution allows the college to give out financial aid to a higher number of people, and although she thinks the amount of the contribution should be lowered, she does not object to paying the SEC in order to give more students on need-based aid the opportunity to attend Yale-NUS.

But Vitkauskas questioned that notion.

“It doesn’t matter that you create more spots for people to get financial aid, to the point where the education hurts people when it comes to their mental health … and to the point where you actually feel like you don’t have the same type of opportunities as your fellow classmates,” Vitkauskas said. “I don’t know if it’s worth it. I don’t know if it’s worth it to take in more people as opposed to taking care of the people that you already have.”

Correction, April 8: A previous version of this story stated that Jane Zhang YNUS ’18 graduated from Yale-NUS in 2017. In fact, she graduated in 2018. 

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