Standing in front of Yale University. Photo credit: Cassandra Hamer

Yale Law announces tuition-free scholarships for qualifying students

Does the measure counter decades of gatekeeping, or does its promise merely attract more applicants? The jury’s out. 

On Monday, the Connecticut-based Yale Law school announced a new initiative to help admittees from low income families attend the country’s top law school at a hefty discount. 

Beginning in the 2022–2023 academic year, the Soledad ’92 and Hurst Horizon Scholarship programs will cover full tuition, fees, and health insurance for those eligible. Hence, assisting accepted students, both whose families’ gross less than the national poverty line and whose assets are less than $150,000. This purported pledge to access and equity thrills Yale Law’s reappointed dean and professor, Heather K. Gerken. 

“We are committed to opening our doors to the students who have the most to gain from this school . . . regardless of their means,” expressed Dean Gerken who explained that the scholarship “will free students with the greatest need from financial worry during law school.” 

Seemingly, the law school has expanded the chance for underrepresented groups to receive the best and one of the most expensive educational experiences that money can buy–for now. 

However, people question why the academy is being honored for doing something that arguably should have already been in place. To the contrary, they claim that Yale finally recognizes the irony of wanting to champion socioeconomic diversity and inclusion now that everyone is poorer than they were two years ago.

“See, that’s the game. They already know we’re Black and brilliant, but a lot of us are broke, too,” asserted a prospective law student who wished to remain anonymous. “Now, right now, the fat cats want to swoop in like Captain save-a-hoe to rescue ‘the poors.’ Where was this 5 years ago, 10 [years ago] while they were putting [people] in astronomical debt? Instead of everyone question[ing] why it took so long, there’s applause. I don’t get it.”

They may be right as tuition and fees are not a major factor in the school’s take-home revenue. As stated by their Senior Vice President of Operations and the Vice President for Finance, Yale generated a surplus of $378 million from operationsup from the previous year’s $203 million in 2020-2021. Additionally, they garnered $276 million more on a Management View basis, compared to $125 million in the 2019-2020. 

In sum, the university finished last year with a net of $44.3 billion, almost $12.6 billion more than the previous year’s $31.7 billion. Most of their income came from utilizing their endowments in 2020-2021. 

The irony–even during the inaugural 2019-2020 pandemic year, targets fell short of pre-pandemic expectations, garnering less than 50 percent of the prior year’s revenue growth. All the while, poor student prospects struggle to reconcile the thought of paying first year tuition at the country’s top law academies; which currently will run you $67,108–a steep price for anyone, but especially disadvantaged Black and Brown students. Adding to the financial stress, this is an increase of almost $2,000 over the previous year’s $65,792 price tag. 

Once you factor in the other costs of attendance, that number soars to almost $100,000 for the 2021-2022 academic year. The overall expenses equaled more than the combined $52,520 based on the Bureau of Labor Statistics 2021 fourth quarter findings on median American weekly salaries. 

According to Reuters, a little less than 10 percent of the 2024 class will automatically qualify for annual scholarships worth more than $70,000. Hence, proponents of the plan point out that the measure could help alleviate some of the looming threat of student loan debt. 

While this implies an act of philanthropy, it also suggests that Yale Law may be seeking to bolster its reputation merits via this act of charity to cover up for application decline. 

According to the Law School Admissions Council (LSAC). As of February 23, LSAC purports that applications have dropped from last year’s 50,501 to 45,796; a nearly ten percent decrease. Although one year during the pandemic saw a bump, this means the overall trend shows people are holding off on applying to law school.

Photo credit: Jon Tyson

Hold up, that was racist . . .

Like many U.S. Ivy League schools, Yale holds a complicated racial history that includes a general exclusion of minority applicants in significant numbers; thus the recent announcement makes their new program feel more performative.

Yale’s emergence in the 18th century, and that of many educational institutions, align with the growth of the country—a nation built on a slave economy. Yet and still, they typically stay silent on the matter. 

“Yale inherited a small slave plantation in Rhode Island that it used to fund its first graduate programs and its first scholarships,” says MIT historian and author, Craig Steven Wilder. “It aggressively sought out opportunities to benefit from the slave economies of New England and the broader Atlantic world.”

While there is no account of how much was funneled from the slavery to American higher education pipeline, scholarships for the white elite were plentiful. That said, the school did not let the first Black student in until another Black person paid for it. In 1871, African American New Haven tradeswoman, Mary Goodman, donated a gift to establish a scholarship fund for African Americans in the institution’s divinity program.

African American Yale Law School graduates of 1921. From left to right, J. Alston Atkins, Charles A. Chandler, Mifflin Gibbs, and Leroy Pierce. Photo credit: Image is courtesy of the Jasper Alston Atkins Papers, Yale University Manuscripts & Archives Digital Images Database, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. Retouched by Marmaduke Percy.

She left behind the sum total of all her assets, $5,000. Today, they would be worth $137,817.65 today, accounting for inflation. A distinguishing luxury usually withheld for white aristocracy, and “woman worthies,” at the time. Goodman passed January 26, 1872; seven years after the Civil War, also marking the emancipation of enslaved Blacks. 

To honor her generosity, Goodman’s body was laid to rest at the Yale Lot in the Grove Street Cemetery. Although happy to accept the university’s first gift from a person of color ever, they re-allocated it to the law school. 

All thanks to Goodman, Edwin Archer Randolph was the first African American graduate of Yale Law in the class of 1880— a full 56 years after the school’s founding. Fifty-one years later, Poughkeepsie, New York’s Jane Matilda Bolin, LL.B. became the first Black woman graduate of Yale Law School in 1931. Her plethora of monumental firsts included becoming: the first African-American woman judge in the nation. As well, she was the first Black woman member of the New York City Bar Association and the New York City Law Department. 

Even these inaugural feats have not placed a sizable dent into the generations of exclusionary racial and gender practices toward minorities. As a result, African Americans constitute only five percent of lawyers today.

All-In

Honestly, most American colleges founded before the Civil War relied heavily on money derived from slavery. This is maybe why many institutions are reluctant to delve into their histories. “There’s not a lot of upside for them. You know these aren’t great fundraising stories,” expressed Wilder.

It was not until Brown University, an institution named after a family of slave traders, addressed the glaring, racist exploitative elephant in the room in 2003 via their investigative report. Dissecting the relationship between the university and the transatlantic slave trade, Brown’s Steering Committee–including 18th president Ruth J. Simmons, staff and students– completed the Slavery and Justice report three years later.

In the landmark report, President Simmons led the charge in exploring how their university, as well as other institutions, profited from their entanglements with human trafficking in the African Holocaust. Concluding, the inquiry unveiled “whitewash[ed] histories of sordid racism” or “[mistook] moral faults for virtue.” 

The report stated. “Some of the founders and benefactors of our great University were holders or traders of slaves . . . We must not hide from that fact, for it is a part of our past, and in speaking its truth, we not only let the light in, but we give it air, making it shine more brightly.”

Dr. Simmons recalled how she is “barely three generations removed” from her enslaved ancestors. Yet, she now occupies the space that the University’s first president and a slave owner, James Manning, did.

Dr. Ruth Simmons’ inauguration as President of Prairie View A&M University, Friday, April 20, 2018. Dr. Simmons left Brown University to become president at her alma mater, a historically black university located in Texas.

Fifteen years after its initial publication, Brown released a second edition in 2021.

Others stumble onto their history, like Mélisande Short-Colomb. The 63-year-old’s roots are enigmatically intertwined with the history of her prestigious D.C based alma mater, Georgetown University. Two of Georgetown’s presidents were Jesuit priests who helped facilitate the sale of her great-grandmother, Mary Ellen Queen, and 271 other enslaved Black people. They were sold to Louisiana plantations in 1838. The Catholic Order used the profits to save the then-failing school from mounting, crippling debt. Today, it is one of the most expensive and prestigious academies in the country. 

Allegedly, the institution still holds Queen’s bill of sale. 

Yet, Short-Colomb does not solely fault her morally questionable alma mater, as multiple institutions have blood on their hands. 

“Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Johns Hopkins, the University of Chicago, Ole Miss, Louisiana State University, Georgia Tech…all of the systems that go into this American life…have contributed to human trafficking, slavery, and the continued disenfranchisement [of Black people],” she emphasized.

Furthermore, Columbia students’ research in 2017 uncovered the school’s history of capitalizing off of slave labor according to the Atlanta Black Star. “From the outset, slavery was intertwined with the life of the college,” their initial report read. “Of the 10 men who served as presidents of King’s and Columbia between 1754 and the end of the Civil War, at least half owned slaves at one point in their lives. So did the first four treasurers.”

. . . .

Yale’s October 2021 law school report shows that 120 minority color were enrolled out of a total 203. From that–34 were Hispanic, 32 Asian, 15 Black or African, 1 American Indian or Native, and 15 listed as more than one racial group. As for last year’s graduation rates, 84 graduates out of the 220 were of color.

Worst still, students have to deal with a lack of representation in enrollment of people who look like them, as well as, microaggressive peers. In September 2021, class of 2023’s Trent Colbert sent a racially insensitive email inviting his law school peers to a joint Constitution Day party hosted by the Native American Law Students Association and Federalist Society. The goal? To christen their “(soon to be) world-renowned NALSA Trap House,” with “[p]lanned attractions includ[ing] Popeye’s chicken.” For the record, Colbert is a fair-skinned student with Cherokee roots.

Many recipients took offense at the negative racial connotations. For one, a trap house is slang for a house where drugs are sold, often seen in dilapidated urban neighborhoods. Moreover, they cite the fact that Colbert was a staunch member of the school’s controversial Federalist Society. The latter is a self-proclaimed group of conservatives and libertarian are known for being anti-Black as well as anti-woman. 

Ultimately, leadership including Director of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Yaseen Eldik deemed the language to be racially insensitive. 

. . . .

Still, Black populations earn less than the white majority in modern times. The former is on track to see negative-to-no-generational wealth, which helps establish resources as well as social capital for one’s future familial generations. So whatever the motive, Yale Law’s programs may be instrumental in addressing the decline. While at the same time, helping proliferate the very circumstance. 

Whether undergrads attend schools like Arizona State and Tarleton State University, or the skull and bones of T-14 law schools like Yale, students cannot escape implicit racism dripping in debt and wrapped in gaslighting.

No doubt, prospective law students are hopeful other ivy league, or just expensive, schools follow suit and shatter the inequitable glass ceilings.

Yolanda Aguilera focuses on culture, policy, domestic, international relations, and the African and Latin Diasporas.

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