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Degree of Commitment
Most students come to Yale College right out of high school. But a few non-traditional students have traveled a more circuitous route—one that sometimes requires them to balance work, family, and classes in pursuit of a Yale diploma.

They’re few and far between. They’re regularly mistaken for professors. If you are a graduate of relatively recent vintage, you might have seen one or two in your classes and wondered what their story was.

They are “degree special students,” participants in a little-known Yale program that allows non-traditional students to attend the College part-time and earn a bachelor’s degree. For 20 years, the program has flown below the radar of most students, faculty, and administrators, each year introducing a handful of middle-agers into classrooms brimming with teenagers and twentysomethings.

The most famous non-degree special student was Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden.

But over time, the profile of the degree special student has changed. Where once they were mostly retired men and empty-nest housewives who wanted a degree just for their own satisfaction, many of today’s special students are younger, juggling family life and jobs in pursuit of a degree they may use to launch a second career. This demographic shift has led to new demands from some special students—most significantly for financial aid, which the University currently does not offer to special students at all.

There are two kinds of special students at Yale. In addition to the 30 or so members of the Degree Special Students Program, there are in any given year about 70 more non-degree special students who are taking individual courses for various reasons: toward a degree at another institution, to fulfill prerequisites for medical school, or just to keep a toe in academic waters. (The most famous non-degree special student in recent years was Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden, who took classes at Yale in the late 1990s.)

Degree special students, on the other hand, are more like conventional Yale undergraduates in some ways. They are working toward the same degrees—bachelor of arts or bachelor of science—and they must fulfill the same requirements for the degrees and within their majors. (In the early days of the program, the only degree offered to special students was a “bachelor of liberal studies,” which did not require candidates to choose a major. It was discontinued in 1986.) But in other ways the status of degree special students is very different. They are given a residential college affiliation, for example, but they are not offered housing on campus.

Students who want to enter the program apply through the admissions office and are chosen from a pool that is separate from that of other potential undergraduates. (Students of any age may also apply in the regular or transfer applicant pools if they wish to attend full-time, and many non-traditional students have done so successfully.) Last year, 50 people applied to the program and 12 were accepted. Jill Cutler, an assistant dean of Yale College who directed the program until recently, says the criteria for admitting special students are necessarily different from those for conventional applicants. “We’re not so interested in college boards and aptitude tests, since in many cases those were taken years ago,” says Cutler. “But we are interested in what they’ve done academically. We look for evidence of academic achievement.”

Some students come to the program with a number of credits from other colleges. They may transfer up to 18 of those credits—half of what is needed for a Yale degree. If an applicant has promise but has not demonstrated an ability to do Yale work, the admissions committee will often ask the candidate first to enroll on a non-degree basis and complete four courses successfully before reapplying to the degree program.


“I couldn’t write papers at the last minute, because that might be when the kids get sick.”

Once they are admitted, degree special students typically take from two to four courses a term, depending on what their jobs, families, and pocketbooks will allow. (The courses cost $2,000 apiece.) Finishing the degree can take twice as long as the typical undergraduate’s eight terms.

Although it might seem that the outside pressures special students face would affect their academic performance, most current students and alumni of the program say the demands on their time help them become better organized. “I couldn’t allow myself to write papers at the last minute,” says Kristin Floyd '01, a mother of two young children, “because that might be when the kids get sick.”

Many older students also say that they have worked through the issues that bedevil adolescent undergrads: leaving home and encountering freedom, alcohol, and romance. “We work much harder,” says Michael Raymond '95, a 51-year-old stockbroker and father of three who got a BA in English and is now pursuing a PhD at Fordham University. “The people who got here at age 18 deserve to be here more than anyone, but I think we put more into it. I never wanted to go into a class at Yale unprepared.”

Besides performing well academically, special students also impress professors and fellow students by offering the viewpoint of another generation or set of experiences. Echoing a view expressed often in the post-World War II years when returning veterans added to the campus mix, Cynthia Russett, a history professor who teaches a course on women in American history, says that many older women who have come to Yale as special students have taken her course, to the benefit of their younger classmates. “They could make it seem much more real and not just part of a distant historical past.”

But for all their success in the classroom, many special students feel something is missing from their education: the collegiality and outside-the-classroom contact that most undergraduates take for granted. “You find a parking place, you go to class, and then you go home again,” says Resa King '96, secretary of the Degree Special Students Alumni Association. Carroll Stenson, who came to Yale three years ago at the age of 54 after raising three children and running an insurance business with her husband, says the lot of an older student has been a difficult adjustment. “It’s lonely,” she says. “I wasn’t looking to be a coed, but I never expected to feel like such an anomaly. I’ve never been in a class with another student my age.”


Giamatti wanted the ladies in the wood-paneled station wagons from Fairfield County to pay big money to take courses at Yale.

Younger special students often have an easier time. Brendan O'Sullivan, who waits tables at the Union League Cafe while working on his degree, is 29 but says he can pass for a regular undergraduate “if I wear my baseball cap backward.” With an apartment near the campus and no family obligations, O'Sullivan lives a life not so far removed from that of any other upperclassman—he has even played intramural hockey for his residential college, Timothy Dwight.

Students like O'Sullivan and Kristin Floyd exemplify how much the program has changed since its inception in the 1970s as an effort to reach out to the community, but also as a reaction to a University’s budget deficit. French professor Charles Porter, who once oversaw the program, says it was A. Bartlett Giamatti, before he became President, who had the idea of making Yale classes available to people other than full-time students—a la carte, not toward a Yale degree. “His idea was that we could attract the ladies in the wood-paneled station wagons from Fairfield County who would pay big money to take courses here,” remembers Porter. “It did have a few takers, but it never became the way to solve Yale’s budget crisis.”

What the program did accomplish was to attract older people—mostly women, but some men, too—who were retired or finished raising children and interested in stimulating their minds. Many came back for more and more classes. Some of them lacked college degrees—and were interested in getting them. Many of the women had left college to get married years before, when the need for a degree was not seen as universal for women. Eventually, in 1981, a degree program was created.

Since Porter left the program in 1988, its demographics have changed to the extent that only one current student—Carroll Stenson—fits the description of a female empty-nester. Porter speculates that “the problem the program was created to solve may have diminished. There was a generation for whom the expectation of college education had begun, but many within that generation were caught in a gap.”

Now, the younger students who are applying to the program come with a wide range of reasons they didn’t stick to the usual high-school-to-college track. Linguistics major Jill Gray left her home in Ohio to be an actress in New York when she finished high school, only to decide ten years later that she needed a degree to get the “real job” she wanted. Mark Herz, who graduated last spring at the age of 39, says he flunked out of Brown twice and was “confused and depressed” during his earlier attempts at college.

Now that many special students are finishing Yale well before mid-life, the number of them who use their degrees to further career goals has also increased. Herz, for example, spent 12 years as a psychiatric assistant before and during his student career, but while at Yale he discovered his talent for writing. He enrolled in the Columbia School of Journalism last fall.

Along with a new set of motives for special students has come a new set of circumstances, and, from some, a new demand for financial aid. A number of alumni and students in the program have been vocal in recent years about what they see as the unfairness of denying financial aid to bona fide undergraduates. “It’s up to Yale to decide whether to admit adult students,” says Michael Raymond, who is president of the Degree Special Students Alumni Association. “But once they do, they should treat them the same as other students.”

Yale College dean Richard Brodhead says that although degree special students earn the same degrees as their conventional counterparts, they are in a different program that was created for different purposes. “The notion that the program should have no difference from Yale College is just wrong,” says Brodhead. “It’s not like we love one group of students more than the other. It’s a function of who the students are and where they are in their lives.” Brodhead points out that since special students are able to attend part-time, unlike regular students, they have more flexibility when it comes to earning money to pay for their courses.

While the University has indicated no interest in reconsidering the aid issue, the DSSAA has raised some $70,000 on its own to support scholarships for current special students. The Association’s Levey Prize—named for Sue Levey '86, an alumna of the program whose husband, Roger Levey, gave a substantial amount in her memory—pays for two courses a year for its recipient.

Administrators have suggested that the Degree Special Students Program might be due for a review, since so much has changed since it was established. But there seems to be a reluctance within the University to look too deeply at a program that is quietly satisfying a steady, if small, stream of customers. Whatever its future, the program has paved the way for an unlikely second act to several dozen lives—and added another dimension to the experience of the many undergraduates with whom they came in contact.  the end


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