More Students Talking About Money and Class

Today’s young people have grown up in a world unlike that of their parents. Class inequality has taken on much greater salience than racial inequality. Today’s youth didn’t grow up seeing fire hoses being trained on peaceful civil-rights demonstrators. Instead they’ve grown up in a country where racism continues to exist, but where voters elected and then re-elected a black president, and where Latinos are a rising political power. And they have come of age at a time of growing economic inequality, when the advantages of economic privilege are greater than ever before. Wealthy families have always had more resources to invest in their children, but the gap in that spending between wealthy and poor families has tripled since the 1970s.

In the Chronicle, Richard Kahlenberg, an author of several books on race, class and education, discusses the rise of student groups in colleges across the U.S. that are looking to foster discussions about class and socioeconomic diversity—much in the same way that issues of race and gender are discussed in other student groups. Kahlenberg’s daughter goes to Middlebury, an expensive liberal arts school that has created a program called “Money at Midd.”:

During my visit, my student host, Samuel Koplinka-Loehr, told me that working-class students often feel out of place amid the wealth on campus, ashamed that they don’t understand the cultural references commonly employed by classmates. Students of modest means feel alone and resent the failure of classmates to acknowledge that the immense wealth found on the campus is not the norm.

In meetings, working-class students and wealthy students come together to have frank, uncomfortable discussions about how much their families pay for their college educations, and how much of the cost they have to shoulder themselves with part-time jobs and loans. But it’s more than talking about the guilt that comes with having or not having money. Other student groups “push college administrators to increase recruitment of low-income students, expand financial aid, adopt need-blind admissions, create partnerships with community colleges, drop legacy preferences in admissions, and forge partnerships with organizations such as QuestBridge and the Posse Foundation to enroll talented working-class students.” I think it’s really terrific. (Thanks to Meghan for the pointer to this story.)

(See also: This discussion in The Awl from 2011 about class and race at Harvard. Photo: a.mina)

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14 Comments / Post A Comment

Mae (#1,769)

That Awl discussion about class at Harvard makes me very grateful for The Billfold.

AitchBee (#3,001)

@Mae Sometimes I peek at the comment sections on Slate, and then I run back here as fast as my little fingers can tappity-tap me.

Student groups in France sponsored some really good discussions about privilege and inequality at their universities in May 1968.

But I guess it wouldn’t be acceptable to have students hurling paving stones at cops, spraying graffiti, and burning cars — what with today’s helicopter parenting and all.

The unfortunate thing is that class disparity doesn’t end once you graduate college, but how visible it is changes. I work in an office with a lot of other ‘twenty/thirtysomethings’ and it’s interesting to see who wears expensive quirky clothes and who doesn’t, who goes to the farmers market for lunch and who eats ramen, who’s always going away on vacation, who lives without roommates, or in a safer neighborhood. These are all material/status based things, but those who eat better, are less stressed out about bills or their housing, and can afford to take time off will most likely do better at their career in the long run. The diploma only levels the playing field slightly.

Sallymander (#3,159)

@The Dauphine Sometimes it depends on what you choose to invest in. I pay out the nose for good housing and make sure to eat square, regular meals (nothing fancy, and I don’t eat out except for very rare social occasions) but scrimp on everything else…no clothes, no movies, no TV. I hope these things DO help my career in the long run; we’ll see…

TARDIStime (#1,633)

@Sallymander no clothes? Depending on your working situation, showing up butt naked may or may not advance you very quickly…

Sallymander (#3,159)

@TARDIStime Hah I meant no NEW clothes, of course! I’m lucky to work in an industry that doesn’t put a lot of emphasis on dressing well, so the clothes that I already have are going to last me a good long while yet. I know how to do basic mending work, so that helps.

I went to an expensive liberal arts college on scholarship, and I had a really hard time coming to terms with the fact that my class mates had so much more than I had. All my friends were other scholarship students, and even now, nearly 10 years after graduation, the gap between the haves and have-nots is still so wide. I don’t think a discussion like this would have really helped me, it probably just would have made me bitter. Sometimes I wonder if I would be better adjusted if I’d gone to a cheaper state school? Because going to a fancy-ass college hasn’t increased my class mobility, it just made me more aware of what I didn’t (and won’t) have.

EvanDeSimone (#2,101)

@honeybunchesofoats this is major sticking point for me. I went to a similar college and it certainly taught me how to talk the talk of the upper class so to speak but if anything the expense of it has limited my actual class mobility.

@honeybunchesofoats Nope, I went to my cheap state U and still got caught up trying to keep up with the Joneses and class was definitely still apparent (who went away on spring break versus who worked). It was easier to find people with your economic status – and I think we all benefited from being in such diverse classrooms – but it was still there.

@honeybunchesofoats If it hasn’t increased your class mobility, at least maybe it’s increased your class consciousness?

Laurabean (#3,040)

@polka dots vs stripes I also went to a State U and I think the diversity was a big saving grace. I worked 30-40 hours per week through college, and so did most of my friends. It was really nice to have that solidarity, especially when I was dragging myself home from a late shift with reading left to do for the next day. I think it also helped that I came from a background in which going to college was the exception, rather than the rule. Most of my close friends from high school didn’t go to college, although some have saved up and are going to community college now. So they finally get that I wasn’t just being a jackass when I complained about never having free time.

And I was putting in more hours than a lot of folks (taking those mostly empty 8 am courses, so I could fit in a full day of work) but I had a lot of emotional support to back me up.

I really don’t have any regrets about my undergrad because I feel like I sucked the marrow out of that experience. Some people got to study abroad or had parents who were able to cut them a check for nice clothes, and I bet they enjoyed having that luxury, but I also had workmates who cried when I left and made me a cake out of dingdongs and a million other experiences that I wouldn’t trade for anything (except the year I cashiered because that almost drove me crazy/ruined my lower back). So it evens out maybe?

I don’t know. I’ve never wanted what the Joneses have; it could just be my temperament. Also, I’m uncomfortably aware that I’m the Joneses now to a lot of people, which feels weird as hell, but that’s another story.

EvanDeSimone (#2,101)

I also attended a Middlebury-class college and I definitely feel that it was a community which could have benefited from some real talk about class and wealth on campus. Instead the wealth divide was built into the structure of the school through housing requirements and other institutions. It was instructive in many ways but not necessarily the most egalitarian environment.

deepomega (#22)

Honestly, I think we should be doing this everywhere, all the time. Humans should know what other humans are earning/paying – or, at least, hearing this info shouldn’t make us cringe up.

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