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Getting Into Yale Today
Early next month, a significant portion of the nation’s most talented high school seniors will go through an agonizing ritual, courtesy of first-class US mail. As applicants for admission to the Yale College Class of 1997, they will find letters from the admissions office in their mailboxes. As the savvy ones know in advance, a thick envelope means thumbs up; a thin one, rejection.
The vast majority of the envelopes will, of course, be thin ones. The recipients of the fat envelopes will undoubtedly be pleased with the outcome, and the end of a tortuous application process involving interviews, reports, essays, test scores, recommendations, transcripts, and financial statements, as well as letters from coaches, development officers, alumni, faculty, relatives, and others interested in getting their candidate in.
But if in the past an applicant’s decision to accept an invitation from Yale might have taken a matter of moments, some are now pondering their course with hesitation. Next year’s term bill for Yale College will likely top $25,000, and that does not include books, travel, clothes, or other basic expenses. With family budgets squeezed more than at any time since World War II, many Americans are finding that financing four years of college is more of a burden than ever before. At the same time, demographic trends have reduced the number of college-age students, especially in the Northeast, which traditionally has been the major source of Yale applicants, creating stiffer competition for the best among them. Moreover, many colleges and universities that previously did not bother to compete with Yale for students are now offering a variety of incentives, including merit scholarships, which can do much to level the playing field for a lesser academic program.
No one at Yale is more aware of the changes in the world of college admissions than Richard Shaw Jr., who last spring became dean of undergraduate admissions and financial aid, replacing Worth David, '56, who had served in the post since 1972 and is now master of Branford College. “It is a difficult choice,” says Shaw of the college options top students now encounter. “The middle-class family especially needs help to understand the value of the sacrifice needed to attend Yale." Adds Margit Dahl, ’75, who as director of undergraduate admissions is Shaw's second-in-command: “People are very, very concerned about the cost of college. Everyone is scrambling a little harder.”
To take one example, the University of Connecticut, which is seeking to keep talent from migrating out of state, will next year offer 30 scholarship packages covering full tuition, room, and board, as well as weekly stipends and guaranteed summer jobs with some of the state’s leading firms. Many other state and private colleges also offer various forms of merit aid for top students.
The situation of elite schools like Yale has not been helped by Justice Department antitrust actions taken against the Ivy League institutions and 15 other leading private colleges for what the government deemed to be collusion in setting their prices. According to university officials, the practice of sharing financial information about applicants and adjusting aid offers accordingly was designed to prevent money alone from determining a student’s choice of a college. Nevertheless, all the affected schools except MIT (which fought the suit and is appealing its loss) have since abandoned the practice, raising the specter of “price wars” over the most desirable students.
In short, while Yale College remains one of the most attractive and highly selective schools in the nation, it can no longer count on its name alone to attract the strongest candidates. As a result, an institution that traditionally considered itself above such practices as advertising and marketing has begun to rethink the way it appeals to its potential customers.
Although Shaw does not have the title of public relations director, he sees his new role as embracing a great deal more of what he terms “outreach” than have his predecessors. “We should be bringing Yale back to the public in a positive way,” he says. “We’re in an amazing era when consumers have lots of choices and are making educated decisions about college. The assumption that students admitted to Yale will automatically come here doesn’t hold anymore. We have to give them information to help them make the choice. Many kids who apply actually don’t know much about the place. They know the name, but not the strength of the undergraduate experience.”
Some feel that Yale has not been effective enough in publicizing that strength, among others. Shaw says that when he was hired by former President Benno Schmidt Jr. and former dean of the College Donald Kagan, they gave him a very specific assignment: “We need to be out there communicating effectively, recruiting, competing for top scholars.”
Among the reasons for that charge, says Shaw, are some recent statistics. Applicants to Yale College peaked at more than 13,000 in the late 1980s, and the number of students accepting those offers of admission—the “yield”—peaked at nearly 60 percent in 1989. (That was the second straight year U.S. News and World Report ranked Yale the best university in the country. The weight given to different parts of the survey was later changed, and Yale has now fallen to third place behind Harvard and Princeton.) At the time Yale’s popularity crested, most of the nation was in the midst of an economic boom, and President Schmidt and other campus officials were still talking about expanding, not cutting back, University operations. Since then, the number of applications has fallen somewhat below 11,000. Some—but not all—of that is attributable to a decline in the total available pool of high school seniors, which is in turn partly attributable to “baby boomers” having fewer children and having them later in life.
More disturbing than the decline in absolute numbers, however, has been the slip in the number of accepted students who decide to attend Yale. That number has declined steadily to less than 56 percent for the Class of 1996. In addition, Yale this year suffered a loss in the number of students applying for early action, a group that usually includes the most committed, and often strongest, candidates. The total fell by roughly 12 percent to 1,413, for a loss of nearly 200 applicants compared to last year and part of a nearly 5 percent (close to 600) drop in the total number of applicants. (Harvard’s total reportedly rose by 600 applicants, while other elite colleges had only minor variations in application numbers.)
Of course, these numbers remain as high or higher than virtually all other colleges except Harvard, which regularly matriculates ’5 percent of those it admits; the yields at Princeton and Stanford are about the same as they are at Yale, with some fluctuation from year to year. And the high rates continue despite last year's national press coverage of Yale’s tumultuous efforts at restructuring and New Haven’s persistent urban woes. Nonetheless, according to Shaw, the publicity has had at least a near-term impact on Yale’s appeal. “Students don’t understand that most institutions are facing fiscal challenges,” says Shaw. “They ask, 'Is Yale going bankrupt?' Sometimes they think we are standing alone, but every place is contending with this.” The point is well taken: Harvard’s faculty of arts and sciences alone is reportedly running a deficit equal to Yale’s entire shortfall.
Shaw also contends that much of the negative attention paid to Yale over the past few years is out of proportion to its problems. “I’m amazed,” he continues, “at the difference between the impression I got in the national newspapers before I arrived here and the impression I get on campus.”
As a Dartmouth graduate (1972), Shaw, who took up his Yale duties in September, is a rare outsider to serve as gatekeeper to the College. But he says that may actually give him a perspective on Yale that is less available to insiders. “It’s hardly a disadvantage if you have to make the effort to appreciate Yale’s qualities,” he says. “We have to keep reeducating ourselves in any case about how the place, the students, and the world have changed. I work harder at it because I don’t make assumptions about why there is such love for the place.”
Originally from Colorado, the 44-year-old Shaw has settled in the shoreline community of Guilford with his wife, Delphine, and their 14-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter. (He describes the age spread between the children as “good college planning.”) When he is not with them or spending 14-hour days reading admissions folders, he makes his way to the golf course, although he admits to being “one of America’s worst golfers.”
After leaving Dartmouth, Shaw worked for ten years in the housing and then the admissions office at the University of Colorado before moving on to the admissions office at the University of California at Berkeley. After five years on the West Coast, he moved to the Midwest, where he directed the admissions office for the University of Michigan. “There is hardly a state I don’t know high schools in,” he says.
At Michigan, Shaw was responsible for a staff of ’0, whose members processed up to 20,000 applications a year to admit a class of 4,500. At Yale, Shaw’s team numbers a mere 15, plus five financial aid officers. “The challenge,” he says, “is not in managing a big operation, but in what sort of place you represent. Yale is one of the great universities, and the experience of the students in Yale College is still the highest commitment. Education in an environment this size is just more enriching.”
Shaw takes over an office with a long record of stability both in its leadership and its mission. Worth David held the dean’s post for 20 years, and Margit Dahl has been with the office for 17. There has already been at least one significant change in the structure of the job: The financial aid office, which used to be separate, has been consolidated under Shaw. But the goals of the office remain the same as they were on March 15, 1967, when President Kingman Brewster sent a now-famous letter to the director of admissions at the time, John Muyskens Jr. Known ever since as the “Muyskens Letter,” the document outlined the policies Brewster felt essential to admitting a new Yale College class.
The letter's contents would surprise few these days, but in the 1960s they were positively alarming to some Yale traditionalists, especially among the alumni. Brewster emphasized the importance of intellectual training, diversity, social conscience and service, and equality of opportunity to a degree never before articulated at Yale in quite the same way. In Worth David’s view, the Muyskens Letter continues to serve as a sort of departmental constitution, making clear “that our academic and intellectual heritage is the most powerful resource we have.”
In his unorthodox document, Brewster laid out six points for Muyskens and the members of his staff to pursue in evaluating a candidate. First, they were to investigate a student’s potential for leadership. Then, they were to consider how well that student might make use of Yale’s resources. Their mission also included identifying students with strong motivation, making certain that they had what Brewster termed “moral concern and consideration for others.” The admissions team was further urged to develop “a socially diverse student body.” Finally, the office was to avoid prejudice in selection so that equality of opportunity might prevail. With the Muyskens Letter, Yale in effect declared its goal for the first time to be a true meritocracy.
Brewster saw the opening up of the institution through its admissions policy as a way to preserve what he considered to be the best of its qualities. In an essay published in this magazine in 1966, he had provided a preview of his intentions. “If the Yale privilege, and the springboard to a head start which it offers, were to be rationed by inheritance,” he wrote, “if it were to be auctioned in return for financial support, if it were to be conditioned by racial or social or economic preference, we would by that measure be dealing a very serious blow to the 'opportunity sense' that is the greatest heritage and the greatest promise of this country.” In the Muyskens Letter the following year, he did make one concession: “The only preference by inheritance which seems to me to deserve recognition is the Yale son.”
Of course, with the admission of women to the College in 1969, that aspect of the policy took on a different meaning. After a shaky start that included a de facto quota on females to preserve the much-publicized goal of producing “1,000 male leaders” a year, the admissions office began reviewing applicants without regard to gender. This year’s entering class is 48.3 percent female, the highest percentage to date.
The current student body is diverse in other ways impossible to imagine when David, let alone Brewster, were undergraduates. Today, 25 percent of the student body is composed of minorities, more than 45 percent receives financial aid, and two-thirds come from public high schools. (In 1960, roughly two-thirds came from private schools.) Notes David: “More than half the people graduating in the 1980s could not have been in my class in 1956.”
Today’s Yale is a product not just of Brewster’s mission statement, but also of fundamental changes in how that mission is pursued. Prior to the establishment, in 1963, of guaranteed financial aid for all needy students and the separation of financial information from the application process, admissions was largely a matter of informal contacts among a small number of men. In fact, much of the process involved phone calls from the dean to a trusted cadre of college counselors at independent schools around the Northeast. The counselors and the dean would develop a list of the students who would go to Yale, and that was pretty much that.
Among the other practices in place when David took over was the distribution of what were affectionately called “Blue Chips.” These were approximately 200 slots in each freshman class that could be assigned at the dean’s discretion. If he wanted to build up the football program or the quality of the singing by the Whiffenpoofs, he could do it. If a wealthy alumnus had a son whose SATs were not up to par, the dean might wish to weigh future contributions against academic excellence. And if the class was short on scientists, poor English grades might be forgiven.
While humane in conception, the practice created the potential for favoritism, and in his second year as dean, David asked that it be canceled. “It was a significant part of the process,” he now recalls. “I thought the system absolved the admissions committee of some responsibility.”
Another of David's innovations was to create an “advocacy” system within the office. When he arrived, the dean himself presented each applicant to the committee of faculty and admissions officers and only voted in the event of a tie. “By the end of the month, I had no voice left,” David says. “But beyond that, I wanted the admissions staff to feel a stronger stake in the outcome.” Accordingly, David and his staff divided the country into what are now 13 geographic regions, assigning to each an admissions officer who was responsible for presenting the candidates from that region to the committee. The dean would vote on every candidate. “The area person became in fact an advocate for his people,” says David.
The advocacy system also gave the committee a better basis for pursuing what David calls “the strong hunch.” In his view, “You need a vehicle to argue for the idiosyncratic person. We were trying to admit the mathematician, the poet, the person with the strong social conscience. But this is well beyond the background of any one person.” Presented with informed arguments by the area representatives, the committee was in a better position to assess the overall composition of a class. “By and large, in selecting a class of 1,300, a hardworking committee will always do better than a single person,” says David.
The system David established remains the backbone of the admissions process, but Shaw plans to examine all aspects of it and survey future applicants to get a better idea of how they make their own decisions about applying to Yale, and, if accepted, attending. He also expects that some of the current materials now sent to students about Yale—catalogs, brochures, and the like—may be reworked, and he is looking into the wider use of videos. Among his other specific thoughts are encouraging present Yale students to recruit candidates in their home towns, and improving ties with the 4,000 members of the Alumni Schools Committees in their work recruiting, interviewing, and following up candidates. “We need a comprehensive approach to our applicant pool,” says Shaw.
For the moment, the admissions process still begins in the summer with a mailing to 6’,000 prospects drawn from the pools developed by the testing services. In the fall, each area representative spends four to seven weeks on the road visiting with students at schools, college fairs, and Yale clubs. In the course of a year, admissions officers will visit 1,100 schools and attend 60 evening gatherings. “You’re expected to visit three to four high schools a day,” says Shaw, “and go to an evening program. And you must always keep a smile on your face. It’s an exhausting process.” Often those visits will include meetings with high school and independent school college guidance counselors and with Alumni Schools Committee volunteers, which extends the area representatives' contacts well beyond metropolitan centers. “If you’re looking for talent,” says David, “then you’re going to Roseburg, Oregon, in addition to Westport, Connecticut." Meanwhile, back in New Haven, 2,300 students will come to the admissions office, which is housed on Elm Street in one of New Haven’s oldest structures, for interviews, and more than 13,000 additional prospective students and their families will visit the campus.
These days, Yale, like its competitors, is going even farther afield in search of talent. This fall Diana Cooke, an assistant director of admissions, made the second of what has become an annual European recruiting trip. Last year, she went to London, Brussels, and Paris. The most recent trip included stops in Frankfurt, Geneva, Rome, Florence, and Nice, where she visited a range of schools and college fairs, as well as a meeting of college counselors for international schools. “The reality,” says Shaw, “is that we’re no longer just one country, but a global community.”
The expansion of the recruiting effort beyond the United States has sparked criticism from some who feel that American students will face stiffer competition as a result. However, Yale is actually one of the last among the nation’s elite colleges to recruit abroad. And even though the number of applicants to Yale from overseas has risen dramatically—from around 400 a decade ago to nearly 1,000 now—no matter how qualified, candidates are admitted only as the limited financial aid budget for foreign students permits or if they can pay their way. Under Yale’s need-blind policy, all American applicants are considered without regard to their financial resources, which are reviewed only after they are admitted. As a result, it is statistically twice as hard for a foreign student as an American to gain admission. But that has an impact on Yale’s declared ambition to remain an institution of increasing international reach. “This year,” says Cooke about her foreign foray, “I was far more discouraging to people with full financial-aid need. It hurts certain populations, especially Eastern Europe, Russia, and India. This is not to say we won’t have students from there, just not as many unless they find alternative resources.”
Among the American candidates, there are three categories of applicants known as “special interest groups”: alumni children, athletes, and minorities. Members of those groups will get an additional reading of their materials during the committee review process, and their admission rate is significantly higher than the rest of the pool. For instance, more than 45 percent of the children of College alumni who applied were admitted last year, more than twice the rate for the rest of the class.
Each sport is assigned a member of the staff who maintains contact with the appropriate coach, and although some coaches—and alumni—may occasionally blame the dean when their teams don’t win, most offer grudging praise. Women’s lacrosse coach Francesca Den Hartog says, “I’d love them to take amazing athletes, but they don’t want the kid who’s going to struggle to make Cs. Their gut instincts are accurate with the kids I’ve dealt with.”
Starting in the early 1970s, Yale was one of the first schools to recruit minorities actively. The number of minority members in any given class now averages around 25 percent, with much of the rise in recent years attributable to the arrival of large numbers of Asian-Americans. A source of disappointment to many admissions officers is that while early efforts to recruit black students raised their representation to 8 percent of the class in 1976, continued efforts have failed to increase that level significantly, and in some years it has actually dropped slightly. Admissions officers attribute the leveling-off in part to a failure on the part of primary and secondary schools to improve their own efforts, and to greatly increased competition among colleges for the relatively stable population of qualified black students. (This April, Yale for the first time will follow the practice of a number of Ivy League schools and pay for accepted minority students to travel to campus in hopes of improving their matriculation rate.)
Whoever and wherever the candidate for Yale College may be, his or her formal process of applying ends on January 1, when all applications and supporting materials are due in New Haven. By then, many will have applied to 20 or more colleges and spent hundreds, even thousands, of dollars on standardized test preparation courses and professional college admissions advisers. “We are seeing much more anxiety about the process, more strategizing,” says Dahl. Some students insist on sending everything they have ever produced, such as photo albums, class papers, or every issue of their high school newspaper or year book. “One student sent 17 additional letters of recommendation,” recalls Dahl. “But they all gave off the same resounding echo of mediocrity. Are we influenced by somebody sending us a cake? Of course not, but I’ll eat it. Going to superhuman lengths doesn’t serve a student well. In fact it helps not to seem overly anxious.” At least one unusual submission may have worked, however. On the mantle of the admissions office conference room sits a painted, carved bird surveying the table at which the committee does its work. “It’s exquisite,” says Dahl. The sculptor was admitted.
Sculptures and cakes aside, academic achievement remains at the core of a successful candidacy. Over the past 20 years, according to Dahl, the median verbal SAT score has remained in the 670–680 range, while math scores have risen 20 points to the 690–710 range. Nevertheless, with so many strong students applying, the quantifiable numbers are only a part of what it takes to get in. “Out of the 11,000-plus applicants,” says Shaw, “99 percent could do the work. We could conduct admissions by crunching out all of the high numbers and say that’s a pure meritocracy. Numbers tell the story, but character does, too. What we want is a chemistry that allows students to learn and grow together.”
Of course, that opportunity comes at a price. Once successful applicants receive their thick envelopes, they must deal with finances. Fully two-thirds of all applicants last year requested some level of aid, and close to 46 percent—the highest level ever—qualified. (The University’s financial-aid budget for the college has soared to more than $26 million, a jump of some 60 percent over the past three years.)
Surprisingly, the numbers tend to belie the perception that only the very wealthy or the very poor can attend Yale. In fact, Yale’s bill remained fairly constant at roughly one-third of median family income from the mid-1950s until 1980. Since then, of course, the effects of an overheated economy followed by recession and basic living expenses rising faster than income have made the “sticker price,” as administrators call it, harder to cover for many Americans. Nonetheless, even families with incomes firmly in the middle-class range have qualified for assistance. According to Caesar Storlazzi, the associate director for undergraduate financial aid, the median family income for the 611 freshmen (out of 1,325) receiving financial aid this year is $49,800. For those students, the average family contribution was $9,050, drawn from the parents’ and the student’s assets and income and the student’s summer earnings. The average self-help derived from a combination of school-year jobs and loans is $3,680. The remainder, $13,840, takes the form of outright grants from Yale or outside scholarships.
Those not eligible for aid must come up with the entire sum. And to do it, many families must make sacrifices. “Most families already spend everything they earn,” says Storlozzi. “This goes for low-, middle-, and high-income families. Even for wealthy families, $13,000 every six months is a lot to fork over.”
In the face of that reality—and the steadily increasing competition from state schools—convincing families that the product is worth the price can be a daunting task. Not surprisingly, Shaw has no doubt about the value of the investment. And he feels well equipped for the pitch. “I’ve seen a lot of different systems,” he says, “and Yale is unique. We represent what we wish education could be everywhere: total engagement. A Yale degree may take sacrifice, but it’s worth it.”
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