Upfront! with Jeremiah Quinlan, Yale-NUS’s Dean of Admisssions & Financial Aid: a re-post of Tan Xiang Yeow’s June 3, 2012 piece in the Kent Ridge Common

Jeremiah Quinlan is the Dean of Admissions & Financial Aid, Yale NUS College (YNC) as well as the Deputy Dean of Undergraduate Admissions, Yale University. He sat down with me to discuss about YNC, the liberal arts school that promises to launch students “toward long-term ambitions and unforeseen achievements”.

After exchanging some pleasantries, we began an earnest discussion about YNC:

Sir, what are the qualities in prospective students that YNC looks out for?

Yale-NUS College evaluates applications holistically. Academic results are important, but we also look beyond test results for students who will make a significant impact on Yale-NUS College and beyond. We want students who are prepared academically for the rigors of Yale-NUS College and who have proven that they’re capable of making the most  opportunities within their schools and communities.

In this inaugural batch, we’ve offered places to student body presidents, nationally-ranked athletes, entrepreneurs who have set up non-profit organizations and their companies, math and physics Olympiad winners, future journalists (including those writing for the KRC!) and musicians. I look forward to seeing our students  performing alongside  the orchestras in the nearby Yong Siew Toh Conversatory and perhaps writing for the Kent Ridge Common.

That’ll be great. But what about students from financially disadvantaged backgrounds? They won’t be able to get into YNC simply because they don’t have time to train for competitions, set up businesses or practice music! They don’t have the qualities that YNC looks out for. Won’t YNC simply be a cluster of students from the middle-upper socio-economic strata of the society, a school for the rich?

Great  question. Alongside the holistic nature of our process, we also closely consider each individual applicant in his or her context. We understand the differences in opportunities at different schools and in different countries. We ask ourselves the following questions: ‘Has the student made the most of the resources around them?’ Because that student will make the most of the incredible opportunities available at Yale-NUS College.  In addition to extracurricular achievements, we also ask for work experience and about family commitments. A student who works 20 hours a week to support his or her family is showing us the same depth of commitment as a student who spends those 20 hours doing athletics.

What we want in YNC is a diverse student body, like the parent New Haven campus. We don’t want a group of similar students. We’ve accepted students from RI, HCI, VJC as well as 20 other schools in Singapore, including several polytechnic students. We want students who are able to blend perspectives from the East and West.  We have admitted Singaporeans educated in other countries as well- such as the US, China, and Australia. As such, YNC is need-blind; it doesn’t consider an applicants’ financial background at all in our admissions process.

But how about some statistics on the financial situation of YNC students?

I’m afraid we don’t keep track of this in the admissions process. As I said, YNC is need-blind. But I can tell you that many of our Singaporean and International students have already applied for need-based financial aid. We want to ensure that cost is not a barrier for any of our admitted students to attend Yale-NUS.

I must confess that my friends and I were disturbed by what The Straits Times reported. The newspapers reported that a student, who got accepted by Yale, was rejected by YNC. It cited you. It also revealed that some prospective students had received offers from top U.S. liberal arts colleges, including Swarthmore, and universities such as Princeton. Why is YNC portraying itself in a better light by the type of students that got rejected? And by its prospective students who happened to receive offers from overseas universities as well? 

I pointed  out that particular example to show how a holistic admissions process is looking for “fit” as opposed to simply academic results. Yale-NUS denied admission to some students with very high test scores and academic results because of ability and desire to look beyond just academics.

(Author’s note: After the interview, I read through The Straits Times article again. There is a realization that the article failed to mention pertinent information. It mentioned that YNC offered places to HCI and ACS(I) students – but not students from 21 other schools, including our local polytechnics.  It has also neglected to mention that YNC is a need-blind, meritocratic college.)

YNC have only taken in 50 students thus far. Isn’t YNC like SUTD? What about the purpose of education, about teaching students who want to be taught? Why is YNC such an exclusive entity?

That is two questions. We’ll have to answer them separately.

SUTD has an option to accept more students – they accepted only 360 students when they could have accepted 500. YNC is different, you see. Our inaugural batch of students – 150 in total – will have to be selected in the next few rounds of admission. That’s why we didn’t accept all 150 applicants at one go. What about students who will complete their A levels and polytechnic studies by this year? What about the international students? What about NS men who did not have the time to apply this year when they just started their national service and have less free time than usual? We’ve got to retain spaces in the inaugural batch for them.

We’re looking at an eventual number of 250 students per cohort. This works out to be 1000 students in the college. Most U.S. liberal arts colleges have 1000 to 1300 students. And I see possibilities for expansion, given the level of interest from highly qualified applicants.

As for the second part of the question, you’ve got to understand that a liberal arts education doesn’t suit everyone. It’s great that Singapore is offering a diversity of opportunities to cater to the needs of different students.

I understand that all students in YNC will be on scholarships. There are three tiers of scholarship and some Yale Singaporeans have expressed their misgivings at such a scheme. Wouldn’t there be some kind of pecking order or hierarchy among YNC students who received different tiers of scholarship? 

I don’t see why this will happen and I think it is premature to make assumptions about the Yale-NUS student body. There are many NUS students on scholarships, study awards and bursaries as well.

But not all NUS students are on these schemes! No one knows who has sponsored education unless we ask. YNC is different. Everyone has a scholarship and there can be discrimination between YNC students with different scholarship offers.

Ahh, but no one will know who has what unless they ask. In addition to merit scholarships, many of our students with have need-based financial aid awards. And each of those awards is customized to the financial need of the student and his or her family. I don’t expect this to be a major topic of conversation with all of the interesting things to talk about at Yale-NUS!

As for the YNC curriculum, it seems a little tentative at this stage. How will it be like? Will students majoring in Chemistry have lessons with other Chemistry majors in the parent NUS department?  

There won’t be a Chemistry major – it’s called Physical Sciences instead. Our YNC students  will have the opportunity to take classes at NUS in subjects like Chemistry and some NUS professors may be teaching them in YNC classes.  As a side note, there may be public YNC lectures that everyone can attend. But all this aren’t worked out yet.

So, YNC is building all the hardware and the software isn’t completely developed at all?

That’s one way to put it, I suppose. But it’s also why it’s so exciting! We’re in the process of hiring top-notch faculty. We’ll have faculty members from all the different continents in the world – including U.S., U.K. and Singapore. Then, we’ll all collaborate to design an inspiring curriculum.

We’ve a year to come up with the curriculum and that’s ample time.

What is the difference between University Scholars Program (USP) and YNC? Both emphasized a multidisciplinary education that promises to broaden horizons. In fact, both programs have about the same weightage (30 to 40%) of foundation interdisciplinary modules. I’ve benefitted tremendously from Dr Peter Vail’s Language, Culture and Native People as well as Dr Patrick Daly’s Politics of Heritage. In fact, I don’t see much difference between what USP and YNC set out to achieve.

I agree with you, the aims are indeed similar. To have critical thinkers who are globally aware and connected. However, there is a difference in the philosophical approaches. USP students have a home faculty so their multidisciplinary education is layered on their majors whereas YNC begins with a multi-disciplinary approach before delving into their majors. Again, different approaches to cater to the diverse needs of students.

Will YNC simply become a cloistered environment, apart from the greater NUS population?

We hope not! We want our students to take part in NUS co-curricular activities, our musicians to practice in Yong Siew Toh Conservatory.  We’ll be sharing our dining hall with Angsana College for the first three semesters. Some of our temporary classroom and study facilities may be in the Education Resource Center and our permanent campus will be right next to Edusports.

YNC is a small college so we won’t be offering any foreign language courses. Our students may choose to clear some electives – by learning modules such as Chinese or German language – with the different faculties on the main campus. There’ll definitely be opportunities for integration into the wider community.

On an unrelated note, what do you think about the furor in the New Haven campus over this Yale-NUS collaboration?  

This debate has luckily galvanized students.  The resolutions was discussed at almost every interview conducted by Yale-NUS during the month of April. At our inaugural event for admitted students  last week, our students were very interested in it and voiced several different opinions on the issue.

Then why didn’t the prospective students contribute to the debate?

How do you know that they didn’t discuss it on their Facebook accounts or blogs?

What is the point then? I’ve taken more than a passing interest in this discussion. Except for Rocco’s article, no other prospective students offered their opinions in a prominent, public manner. Is that the kind of students that YNC accept? You’re looking for global leaders, for change thinkers, for people who’ll come up with solutions to global problems. And none of your prospective students stood up to defend YNC?

First off, YNC will not be a college with just outspoken people. There’ll be quiet thinkers as well. Not everyone will want to express their opinions in a public manner nor should they feel they have to.

Secondly, when the debate was unfolding, we had not yet to sent out any acceptance letters. At that point, prospective students did not know whether they’ve been accepted into YNC.

Still, there remains a notable lack of silence on YNC’s part. Why didn’t YNC – faculty-wise – engage with the New Haven parent campus? By not engaging them at the outset, YNC have allowed them to shape the discourse in a misinformed manner.

In America, there’s a saying: the proof of the pudding is in the tasting. Over the next year Yale-NUS faculty, students, administration and staff will be working on so many different aspects of the College. I think the success of this project will be measured on how groundbreaking the curriculum is, how amazing the student experience is and the ability of our students to take a truly global education, and go out in the world after they graduate and truly make a difference.

I would Yale-NUS focus on our efforts moving forward than the resolutions of the past. Plus, I think many Singaporeans (including some writing for this paper!) did a great job re-centering the conversation after the resolution passed.

Any concluding thoughts?

I think that there’s a lot that Yale can learn from Singapore. More Yale faculty members should visit Singapore. In my first ten months that I’ve been here, I’ve walked into more impressive schools than the ten years I spent visiting schools in U.S.  The students here are really bright and questioning. Just like with Yale students, it was inspiring and energizing to meet so many of them last week at our event.

The author would like to thank Mr Quinlan for his candid responses and willingness to be interviewed. Mr Quinlan has suggested a face-to-face interview, in place of the requested email interview, despite having to fly off to the States four hours later on the day of the interview. 

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