"I had to choose between my education and my safety"
How Yale's withdrawal and readmission policies leave students no choice but to stay.
Content warning: This article contains references to suicide and self-harm.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a hotline for individuals in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. To speak with a certified listener, call 1-800-273-8255.
Crisis Text Line is a texting service for emotional crisis support. To speak with a trained listener, text HELLO to 741741. It is free, available 24/7 and confidential.
To talk with a counselor from Yale Mental Health and Counseling, schedule a session here. On-call counselors are available at any time: call (203) 432-0290.
Students who are interested in taking a medical withdrawal should reach out to their residential college dean.
Additional resources are available in a guide compiled by the Yale College Council here.
As is explored in the following story, Yale’s systems for withdrawal and reinstatement are surrounded by misconceptions and confusion. For clarity, much of the policy for Yale College — which differs from policies across the University, is included at the bottom of this story.
Before the start of the spring semester in 2o21, Serena Riddle ’21 and her therapist were at an impasse. Riddle had been living with depression since her sophomore fall, and she wasn’t doing well. Her therapist voiced concerns about her wellbeing and laid out her options: do an intensive outpatient program, start medication or go to the hospital.
“She said that preferably, more than one of these things would need to be true,” Riddle recounted.
If she chose none, her therapist said she would hospitalize her involuntarily. So, Riddle looked into her options. Could she do the intensive outpatient program while being enrolled? Absolutely not — it is impossible to do both, she realized. What if she started new medication? Her therapist felt she was too unstable to gamble on the possibility of side effects. Several people recommended that she withdraw from school, but that didn’t seem like an option for financial reasons. Riddle decided to enroll and spend the first few days of the spring semester in the hospital, hoping that she would be okay afterward to power through her last semester at Yale.
Had she known that she would later have to completely withdraw from the semester, and navigate the murky waters that would come with that decision, she may have chosen differently, she said.
Last semester, I spoke to six students about their experiences with Yale’s withdrawal policy and spent over two months retracing their steps, searching for answers to their lingering questions about what Yale’s policy actually is. Whether because of specific University policies, failure to communicate these policies to students or longstanding rumors, many feel they have no choice but to remain enrolled, even when it might not be in their best interest. As a reporter, I’m trained to find and sift through documents, to comprehend and explain them to people. Still, despite hours spent on policy websites, calls and long email exchanges, I was constantly redirected and confused by the contradictory information I was finding.
At one point I was attempting to determine whether students can receive financial assistance for funds spent on community college classes necessary for reinstatement — Riddle is still unsure if she can get reimbursed for the $1,200 she said she spent on Gateway Community College classes.
But when I called the financial aid office to clarify their policy, the representative who answered the phone redirected me to the withdrawal policy website. She said that the financial aid office could not answer questions about how students would be billed in case of a withdrawal or if their aid would cover those bills. According to her, that is a question that would involve contacting the registrar’s office, bursar’s office, Yale hospitality and a student’s residential college dean. When asked how a student could find out what specifically would happen with their financial aid if they withdrew, she said, “you wouldn’t know that until you withdraw.” When I sought to clarify further, she hung up on me. Alexander Muro, the associate director of financial aid, declined to comment about the lack of information.
The hoops I jumped through seeking information about Yale’s policies are just one element of the issue, though. Because once someone does come to understand the policies, they are often more intimidated.
A 2018 paper for the Ruderman Foundation, a philanthropic organization focused on disability advocacy and inclusion, graded schools’ leave of absence policies with the help of national college mental health experts. No school received above a D+, and Yale received an F, which was one of the worst grades in the report.
(Isaac Yu, Production & Design Editor)
“This is a problem that’s plaguing higher education in general,” explained Miriam Heyman, one of the coauthors of the paper and senior research associate at Brandeis University’s Lurie Institute for Disability Policy. Heyman and her coauthor concentrated on the Ivy League hoping that as leaders in higher education, if they started making strides on this issue, other institutions would follow.
Taking a break from Yale
At Yale, students can take time off in two ways: through a leave of absence or withdrawal. Students “in academic good standing” can petition to take a leave of absence for any reason on or before the fifteenth day of each semester. According to the Yale College Programs of Study, students who opt for a leave of absence may return at the beginning of the next semester without further application and have the right to stay on the Yale Health Plan during their time away. But after the 15th day of each semester, students who need to take time off must withdraw, and they’re permitted to do so for disciplinary, financial, personal, medical or academic reasons.
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As soon as the withdrawal is in effect, students have 72 hours to move out and are barred from reentering campus during their time away unless they have explicit permission from their residential college dean. According to the Programs of Study, students are required to remain away for at least one semester, not including the semester during which they withdrew. When a withdrawn student wishes to return, they are subject to a reinstatement process which involves taking two courses at another college or university as well as submitting an application, a personal statement, letters of support and a letter from a clinician in the case of medical withdrawal. They must also be interviewed by the Committee on Reinstatement.
A wide variety of unforeseen circumstances can leave students with less emotional or physical capacity to do the work needed to continue their studies. Death in one’s family, accidents, sexual misconduct/stalking, mental health symptoms and chronic illness diagnoses don’t operate on the academic calendar. For many students, the circumstances which make it hard for them to stay in school happen in the middle of the semester, so they can’t choose to take a leave of absence. These students have to navigate a complicated process to take time off.
Choosing between Yale and your life
“It totally freaked me out,” Griffin Wilson ’24 said of the reinstatement process. As an international student from Canada, he worried that he wouldn’t make the grades he needed during his time away to be reinstated. Grades of B or higher are required for reinstatement.
“I felt like I had to choose between my Yale education and my safety — my Yale education and my life,” Wilson said. After he was hospitalized following a panic attack, his father flew to New Haven to stay with him. At this point, he was severely depressed.
“I was self-harming and suicidal,” he said. “I felt like if I was going to keep going with school, then there was a good to fair chance that I would end up dead.”
“I felt like I had to choose between my Yale education and my safety — my Yale education and my life.”
But after looking into his options, he realized that he’d missed the leave of absence deadline, and he didn’t want to withdraw. On top of the reinstatement process, he would be required to remain away for an entire year, which was longer than he thought he needed. “I couldn’t do what was in my best interest without risking something that I had worked so hard for,” he recalled.
Last March, after a first-year student died by suicide, many students expressed grievances with Yale’s medical withdrawal policy. Students shared their fears about involuntary withdrawal and how that impacted the ways they sought treatment, the financial barriers created by Yale’s policies, their worries about not being able to return and their experiences of having their reinstatement applications denied.
Melanie Boyd, dean of student affairs, declined to comment for this article, but she wrote in an email to the News last semester that involuntary withdrawals are “exceedingly rare.”
“Stepping away from college to focus on mental health is the right decision more often than not, even if it may not seem so at the time,” Risa Sodi, assistant dean of academic affairs and chair of the Committee of Reinstatement, wrote in an email to me. “Yale College wants all withdrawn students to return to Yale when they are ready.”
But students can only return from withdrawal once. Yale’s policy stipulates that “A student is eligible to be reinstated only once; a second reinstatement may be considered only under unusual circumstances, ordinarily of a medical nature.”
(Isaac Yu, Production & Design Editor)
Authors of the Ruderman Foundation’s white paper criticized minimum leave time policies and the capped number of withdrawals and reinstatement. “Trajectories of mental illness vary from one person to the next,” said Heyman, the paper’s co-author. Many students, she said, “get their sense of identity and purpose from being students. If that’s taken away, then it will take away a guiding structure in how you see yourself…. Any sort of finite number of three leaves or three months is completely arbitrary. And it’s counter to what we know about the individualized trajectory of mental illness.”
Tweaks but not comprehensive reform
Yale College Dean Marvin Chun oversees withdrawal policy. He isn’t directly involved with setting reinstatement policy, but major policy changes for both withdrawal and reinstatement are only made with the help of college-wide input in the form of a committee appointed by the dean.
When asked if there were any inconsistencies or problems he saw with the current policy, Chun said that he worries that “there’s this perception out there that withdrawal is scary and that reinstatement is scary, and I think students feel discouraged from taking a withdrawal because of these perceptions.” Chun asserted that over 90 percent of students who apply for reinstatement are reinstated. I was unable to independently verify this statistic, but in an email, Sodi put the figure at approximately 80-90 percent.
“I’m very willing to keep thinking about improving our policy so that students don’t feel that,” Chun continued.
In his time as Dean, Chun has never made major changes to withdrawal policy — though there were some tweaks due to COVID-19 — nor appointed a committee to review the current policies.
The last committee formed to review the policy was appointed by Jonathan Holloway, Chun’s predecessor, in the fall of 2014. After meeting 11 times, the committee produced a 4,300-word report with recommendations to clarify and refine the process, including changing the name of the “readmittance process” to the “reinstatement process” to clarify that temporarily withdrawing does not nullify one’s initial acceptance.
But the committee didn’t address the root of current student complaints. For example, the committee proposed “a clarification of the time such students have to leave campus, which is no more than 72 hours” but didn’t address the more fundamental requirement that gives students three days to pack, move out, arrange travel — in some cases internationally — and leave.
When asked for the reasoning behind this 72 hour policy, Mark Schenker, dean of academic affairs and member of the committee, declined to comment.
“I don’t think we would extend the time,” said Chun. “It’s just good to have deadlines, so that students can know what to expect, and so that we know what to expect.” Extending the time, Chun said, “just drags on the move out process.”
According to a 2018 article about Yale’s reinstatement policies, Holloway endorsed all the 2015 recommendations, which means they could be enacted as policy, but while some changes were put in place immediately, others are still to be implemented. For example, the committee recommended that withdrawn students be given the right to petition for the use of the University library. But in 2021, this is still absent from the withdrawal policy website. The committee also recommended that all materials for the reinstatement application be made available on the Yale College website. As of January 2022, the application form is only available upon email request.
(Isaac Yu, Production & Design Editor)
When asked about further implementation of the now six-year-old recommendations, Chun pointed to the progress that had already been made. In response to the committee’s findings, Yale College extended the last day to take a leave of absence from ten to 15 days, eliminated the $50 reinstatement application fee, offered a teleconference option for reinstatement interviews (which students previously had to fly to New Haven for), and altered the role of the residential college deans in the reinstatement process. He said, “If there were to be further changes to be made, I think we would appoint a new committee.”
The need for transparency
“Regardless of how fantastic or horrible things are on the ground, knowledge is power,” Heyman said. In response to the white paper, many administrators told her about specific support they have for students, like a point person who could answer questions about the withdrawal process. “If that stuff isn’t written out in a transparent way, then students don’t know that they have the right to access those things,” Heyman continued. “And then [the universities are] not doing all they could to empower students.”
“Regardless of how fantastic or horrible things are on the ground, knowledge is power.”
At Yale, the policies are anything but clear. Before starting to report this piece, I spoke to friends, three professors, a dean, and Amelia Davidson ’24, who wrote the News’ piece on medical withdrawal in March 2021, just to see where I should start looking. In ten separate attempts to get answers from administrators, I was repeatedly referred to either the reinstatement FAQs or the leave of absence, deferral, withdrawal, and reinstatement policy webpage. These are considered the authoritative and current documents for what taking time off from Yale will look like. However, they conflict — both internally and with each other — and don’t contain some vital information.
For example, several changes made due to COVID-19 are displayed at the top of the reinstatement FAQs, but those changes are not reflected on the policy website. The website says that online courses “do not fulfill” the reinstatement requirements even if they’re taken at Yale Summer Session. However, the FAQs say that synchronous online classes do count. According to the FAQs, students seeking reinstatement for Spring 2022 whose withdrawals were processed through Yale Mental Health & Counseling should have their clinicians submit a clinician’s letter to Amy Perry of MH&C. The next section in the FAQs directs those same students to have their clinicians submit letters to Paul Hoffman, director of MH&C.
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According to Chun, withdrawal is primarily processed through the residential college dean’s offices. Their role, according to Chun, is to be a “portal” to connect students with campus resources and help them find the answers if they don’t know it themselves.
For Riddle, the student who opted to spend the first week of what was supposed to be her last semester in the hospital, the lack of clear information was a deterrent to even considering withdrawal in the first place. From the time she was diagnosed with depression as a sophomore, she’d heard from other students that she wouldn’t have financial aid when she came back, or that she would be required to pay for the time she spent at Yale before withdrawing for the semester. As a student on full aid, that was not feasible.
Riddle’s health insurance, therapy and psychiatric care were covered through Yale. But could she stay on the Yale Health Plan if she withdrew? That information is nowhere to be found on the Programs of Study website or in either of the documents I was referred to.
(Isaac Yu, Production & Design Editor)
After returning from the hospital, Riddle felt worse, not better, so she looked into medical withdrawal just a few days too late to take a leave of absence. After meeting with her residential college dean and spending over three hours with her housemates reading the policy online, she still didn’t have answers.
“If I could have gone to my dean and asked all my questions or got them all answered, I could have had all the information I needed to make my decision in one day,” Riddle said. “But instead it was dragged out over like two weeks or three weeks.”
When asked about how deans might help students find answers to the questions like the ones Riddle was asking, Chun said, “To make it easier for students, deans usually have all that information.” I emailed Riddle’s dean twice and called the residential college office multiple times and never got a response.
Riddle started calling and emailing around. Yale Health Insurance Member Services told Riddle she could stay on her insurance plan provided that she purchased it for “some thousands of dollars” but she doesn’t recall the exact amount. And after many redirections and incomplete or inaccurate information, she was told in an email by Muro, the associate director of undergraduate financial aid, that she would have financial aid when she got back and wouldn’t have to pay for the semester she withdrew from.
“I was misled at literally every step,” Riddle said. After filling out all the paperwork and not doing her school work in anticipation of withdrawing, Riddle had a meeting with Paul Hoffman to make sure she understood what withdrawal would entail. He informed her that she couldn’t stay on Yale insurance after all, contrary to the information she had received when she called.
When I called Yale Health Member Services to inquire about students’ ability to stay on the health plan during a withdrawal, I was told that once students have withdrawn, “their plan ends at the end of the term.” This is not only different from what Riddle says she was told, but it’s also not what happened. Instead, Riddle lost her therapist and psychiatrist almost immediately — she saw them each one last time — and spent two months without insurance or treatment during the pandemic.
After digging around online, two phone calls and an email exchange with Ariel Perez, assistant manager at Yale Health Member Services, I found the policy laid out online, but it’s not easy to find.
When asked about the discrepancy in information, Perez wrote in an email that he “could not speak to specific instances” but explained that while “the process for petitioning for a leave or withdrawal are similar…the coverage pathways and termination periods are significantly different.”
“When my office receives call [sic] from students we find that at times a student presents with questions about a leave, but it is really a withdrawal or vice versa.”
‘Horror stories’ deter students from even asking questions about withdrawal
Gaps in written policy which necessitate these phone calls sometimes act as a deterrent to students who are not ready or able to dedicate time and energy to call around in the first place.
When a student, who is currently a junior, was in her first year at Yale, she went to a cast party for a play and drank for the first time. She doesn’t know what happened after that, but she woke up in the hospital with abrasions on her chin. Her doctor told her she might have fallen and ordered a CT scan to make sure she didn’t have a concussion.
She didn’t. She had an unusual growth in her brain.
The student, who has been granted anonymity due to fear of professional repercussions for her health issues, took a week to process and grieve before telling her parents. They wanted her to come home for treatment immediately. She looked into the policy online and felt intimidated about asking her dean for help or taking time off.
“My hope was just that I could take a leave until Christmas break and then come back in January,” she explained. But under the withdrawal policy, that wasn’t possible. “I was worried about coming back. I’ve heard so many horror stories of people that had issues that were even worse than mine and then being asked not to come back.”
Concerns about her financial aid, the reinstatement process, and not being able to live with her suitemates in the next year swirled in her mind as she went through a month of MRIs and doctor’s visits to try to diagnose what she now knows to be a cyst in her brain. At the time, she didn’t know if it was malignant or benign, how big it was, if she’d need surgery, or what signals to look for to indicate that her situation was serious.
“Every time I had a headache or brain fog or anything, I would get really worried,” she said.
Bureaucracy and change
As the chair of the reinstatement committee, Sodi does not handle or influence withdrawal policy. These are separate processes. Yale University also doesn’t have a unified policy. Yale College, the graduate school, and each of the professional schools have their own individual policies.
The representative from the financial aid office who hung up on me said she couldn’t speak to how withdrawal would impact what a student pays because billing doesn’t happen there. Financial aid only determines how much aid students receive to help with the bill.
According to Heyman, the researcher at Brandeis, needed changes include removing the prohibition on visiting campus during students’ time away and allowing withdrawn students to access campus resources.
Students and alumni are pushing for change. And according to Jasmine E. Harris, a professor and expert on disability and antidiscrimination law at the University of Pennsylvania, the changes that have been made were student-driven.
“The reason we’re doing much better is because students have made it a priority,” she explained. Students, she said, are “best positioned” to understand their needs and know if proposed modifications would be helpful, so solutions should start with them and keep the lines of communication as direct as possible. Playing a “game of telephone” with administrators to change or even just clarify policy can be a huge disincentive for students to seek help and is “completely inefficient,” she said.
“By the end of that game of telephone,” she said, “you’ve wasted time that the student may not have.”
Editor’s Note: Here is the information we could find to clarify Yale’s withdrawal and reinstatement policies.
When a student withdraws from Yale College, their financial aid is adjusted proportionately to the adjustment of their tuition. These adjustments are determined based on the time in the semester when the student withdraws, and more information can be found in Section D. on the Financial Services page of the online publication of the Yale College Undergraduate Regulations. This may or may not result in a balance due to Yale depending on their financial aid package and the point in the semester they withdraw.
Once a student has withdrawn, they have 72 hours to leave campus. Withdrawn students cannot visit campus without permission from their residential college dean.
Withdrawn students cannot stay on the Yale Healthcare plan. According to Yale Health’s website, students who withdraw from the University after the fifteenth day of the semester will be covered by Yale Health for 30 days after their withdrawal date or through the last day of the term, whichever comes first.
“Fees will not be prorated or refunded. Students who withdraw are not eligible to enroll in Student Affiliate Coverage.” the website continues, “Regardless of enrollment in Yale Health Hospitalization/Specialty Coverage, a student who withdraws from the University will have access to services available under Yale Health Basic Coverage (including Student Health, Athletic Medicine, Mental Health & Counseling, and Care Management) during these thirty days to the extent necessary for a coordinated transition of care.”