“How much does your family make?” As if by instinct, nearly every student at this college might immediately furrow their brow in response to such a question. “Well, that’s none of your business!” Of course, such a reaction is by no means confined to the student body of Connecticut College. One would likely receive a similar response in any other part of the country. But why is it that we are often so defensive when it comes to discussing our socioeconomic status? Is it due to personal privacy? Or is it perhaps because the subject is so uncomfortable to discuss? I, for one, am of the belief that the most uncomfortable subjects are the subjects that deserve to be discussed the most.
A few weeks ago, The New York Times published an article titled “Some Colleges Have More Students From the Top 1 Percent Than the Bottom 60” which reported on the status of income inequality on college campuses across the United States. Based on research from the Equality of Opportunity Project, the article identified thirty-eight four-year institutions of higher education in the United States which had more students from the top 1% of income earners than from the bottom 60%. Currently, there are 3,026 four-year institutions of higher education in the United States. That means that roughly 1.3% of all four-year colleges and universities in the country report having more students from the top 1% of income earners than the bottom 60%. This portion of colleges is so incredibly small, one might wonder why I even bother to write about it. Well, you might be interested to know that Connecticut College made the list.
Of the country’s 3,026 four-year colleges and universities, Connecticut College ranked twenty-second in terms of income inequality. Further, The New York Times ranking reported that 18% of Connecticut College students come from households that earned greater than $630,000 annually (the top 1% of households in the United States), while only 14.8% of students come from households that earn less than $65,000 annually (the bottom 60% of households in the United States). To put this in perspective, consider that if you were in any given course with twenty students, it would not be unlikely for four of your classmates to be millionaires.
To some students, these revelations regarding the College’s near-obscene level of social stratification may be surprising. But that 14.8% of the student body from the bottom 60% of income earners has likely been aware of the College’s overrepresentation of wealthy households since their first week on campus. You’re probably familiar with the term “culture shock” in the context of an individual’s difficulty in adjusting to the way of life in foreign countries. Well, it does not seem unfair to characterize the experience of middle class and low-income students on this campus as marked by their own degree of culture shock. Prior to my first year at Conn, I had never heard of Vineyard Vines, I had no idea what a prep school was, and I couldn’t point to the Hamptons on a map. I have to admit, many of my social interactions were a bit confusing. I met people who hadn’t ever done their own laundry. Some claimed to have never eaten in a food court. And everyone had seemingly taken a trip to Europe at some point. It was clear that I had a different cultural experience growing up than many of my peers.
Beyond my cultural differences with the more affluent students at the College, over the years I began to notice how many of them were woefully ignorant of the economic realities that the less-affluent faced. For example, I once asked another Conn student what threshold they considered to be low-income in the United States. In all seriousness, they responded “Anything under $200,000.” For those of you who are unaware, the median household income in the United States was $55,000 in 2015.
This campus is extremely fortunate to have such spaces as the Womxn’s Center, the LGBTQIA Center and Unity House for students to come together and discuss critically important issues surrounding gender, sexuality and race. The presence of such spaces and the continuation of such dialogue is not only conducive to a rigorous and intersectional education, but also invaluable in the formation of a student’s worldview.
Writing this is not my way of advocating the formation of a center specifically to discuss issues regarding class, poverty and social status. However, I feel that the lack of discussion of issues regarding class, paired with the reality that so many of our students are much more affluent than the average individual, has created a campus culture shrouded in ignorance of the economic realities of the rest of the country, and, indeed, the world.
The issue of class is especially relevant today, in light of the working class movements ignited by both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump during the 2016 U.S. Presidential election and the economic themes that both candidates’ campaigns brought into the forefront of political discussion. However, I fear that within the student body of Connecticut College, there exists a dominant culture of elitism that is all-too-quick to dismiss many of these voters as “white trash” and the like. I have to wonder: when students discuss free trade agreements, minimum wage, healthcare law and the like, do they realize that they are not speaking in the abstract? Or does their privileged perspective prevent them from understanding the human experience of economic violence?
I can’t speak for any other students on campus, but class is certainly an identity which I feel separates my own life experiences from those of others. My family falls into the bottom 60% income bracket and has existed there for as long as I can remember. One of my immediate family members received unemployment benefits during the most recent recession. I have tens of thousands of dollars in public and private student loans. I went to a public high school where most of my classmates went off to community college or directly into the workforce upon graduation. I once had a summer job pushing carts at the local Walmart, and–besides the limited policy that the College required me to purchase–no one in my household can afford health insurance. But perhaps the most ironic insight of all is that, even having been accepted to multiple state universities, I made my decision to attend Connecticut College primarily because their financial aid package made it the cheapest option I had. I feel no more or less comfortable sharing details about this aspect of my identity than I would any other.
So why do we not talk more about class on this campus? Why is it still considered rude to discuss one’s household income or socioeconomic status? Many of our students are more than happy to share their experiences regarding race, gender and sexuality. So what’s so taboo about sharing our experiences regarding class?
I don’t pretend to know the solution to these problems on our campus, but it couldn’t hurt to commit at least some of our intellectual effort toward understanding the perspectives of middle-class and low-income students on campus. Or, of course, we can choose to take our ranking in the top 1.3% of U.S. colleges and universities in terms of income inequality and wear it with pride.