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Yale’s “Special Student” Programs

The Yale Alumni Magazine regularly allots this space to a Q&A with Yale president Rick Levin ’74PhD so that alumni can learn his views. In this issue, Levin asked that we print his April 17 statement regarding the “special student” programs at Yale. The statement was issued in the wake of the controversy over Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi. (See “Should Rahmatullah Hashemi be at Yale?”) Levin also answered questions from the magazine’s editor, Kathrin Day Lasilla ’81, about the statement.

Yale’s non-degree Special Student Program was introduced in 1977 to permit a small number of individuals, typically local residents not of traditional college age, to take courses without earning credit toward a Yale degree. The program was intended to offer educational opportunities to older students who wished to earn credit toward degrees at other institutions, who contemplated career changes, or who wanted to enrich their personal lives. About 50 to 60 students are admitted each year. These students do not live on campus, do not receive financial aid, and do not compete for admission with the 1,300 members of the freshman class in Yale College.


“Media attention began to focus on the non-degree Special Student Program.”

Yale College also sponsors a bachelor’s degree-granting Special Student Program, recently renamed the Eli Whitney Program. This program, started in 1982, also serves students who are not of traditional college age. The 8 to 12 individuals admitted each year enroll part-time; they, too, do not live on campus, do not receive financial aid, and do not compete for admission with the 1,300 members of the freshman class in Yale College.

When media attention began to focus on the non-degree Special Student Program in February of this year, I asked Dorothy Robinson, vice president and general counsel of the university, and Jeffrey Brenzel, the newly appointed dean of undergraduate admissions, to review the program’s admissions process. In the paragraphs that follow, I summarize their findings and draw my own conclusions.

The criteria for admission to both the non-degree and degree-granting special programs, as published on the web, are: “Yale seeks applicants whose academic background, work experience, and community involvement are particularly suited to study at Yale. All candidates must present evidence of high academic potential, maturity, and clear motivation for their proposed course of study.” It is also noted that “Candidates should have a compelling educational reason to attend as a non-degree student.”

The published criteria are adequate in some respects, but they fall short of the standard that we should require for admission to Yale College. In the process of admitting a regular undergraduate for four years of study in Yale College, we look for character and achievement sufficient to predict that the candidate will make substantial and meaningful contributions to the betterment of society. We seek to admit not simply candidates who can do the academic work required for graduation, but rather those with the capacity to lead and to serve society with distinction. Evidence of an applicant’s character, as well as his or her academic potential, is always given substantial weight.


“Almost 30% of recent applicants have been admitted.”

Our review has raised questions whether the admissions practices of the non-degree Special Student Program have been consistent with the published criteria, let alone the standard that should prevail. In recent years, while fewer than 10 percent of the applicants to the regular undergraduate program have received offers of admission, more than three-quarters of the applicants to the non-degree program have been admitted.

The procedures for admitting students to the degree-granting Eli Whitney Program have been more rigorous and have resulted in somewhat greater selectivity. Yet, here too, the rate of admission seems high when compared with regular admission to Yale College; almost 30 percent of recent applicants have been admitted. It is difficult to understand why the standard for this program should be any lower than that used to judge the qualifications for regular admission to Yale College, since the same degree is granted in both cases.

Over the years, both the non-degree Special Student Program and the degree-granting Eli Whitney Program have served many students of whom the University is justly proud. But the initial review I requested concluded that both the programs suffer from lack of clarity about mission, purpose, and standards. As a next step, the dean of Yale College and I, as co-chairs of the standing Committee on Yale College Admissions Policy, will convene a subcommittee to consider the appropriate size of these programs, give their mission and purpose clear articulation, and define admissions criteria consistent with the high standards and moral purposes of a leading institution of higher learning.

Pending the outcome of this further review, decisions on admission to the non-degree program for 2006-07 will adhere to the published standard, and the standard for admission to the degree-granting Eli Whitney program will be equivalent to that applied to candidates for regular admission to Yale College, recognizing that in assessing more mature candidates, relatively more weight should be given to achievement than potential.



Y: When the Eli Whitney Program began, it offered a Bachelor of Liberal Studies. The program now offers a standard bachelor’s degree, so it appears that the degree has been upgraded but not the admissions standard. Is this a concern?

L: Yes. I was concerned that this degree is precisely the one conferred on undergraduates who spend four years in our regular program. Either the degree should be different or he standard should be the same.

Y: You are leaving the non-degree program unchanged while your subcommittee completes its review. But you’ve decided to apply a more stringent standard for the Eli Whitney Program immediately. Why is that? It appears you are strengthening the standards for those, including the controversial Rahmatullah Hashemi, who may have applied this spring for the May 1 deadline.

L: We are not leaving the non-degree program unchanged. In practice the standard for admission is less demanding than the published criteria would imply. I am asking that the published criteria be applied pending review.

Y: The admissions process for Eli Whitney candidates is necessarily different from that of the regular undergraduate admissions pool, since Eli Whitney candidates have in some cases not been in a classroom for years. What kind of changes are you anticipating when you say that the standard for now will be equivalent to that for the regular pool—equivalent SAT scores, for instance?

L: We are looking for the capacity to lead and serve society with distinction. It is only reasonable that life achievement should be given greater weight for mature candidates than for high school seniors. Thus, admitted Eli Whitney candidates might have lower average SAT scores and high school grades than 18-year-olds, but not lesser potential for academic achievement and future leadership and service.






Should Rahmatullah Hashemi be at Yale?
The news that a former spokesman for the Taliban is taking courses at Yale College set off a debate on campus and in the media about the redemptive value of a liberal education.


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